The film is called Renoir. Which Renoir? Pierre-Auguste, the great painter, or his son Jean, the great filmmaker? Answer: yes.
This appealing, somewhat rambling drama, directed and co-written by Gilles Bourdos, takes place in 1915 on the Cte d'Azur. World War I rages in Europe, but as the film begins, calm prevails at the gorgeous home of Pierre-Auguste (Michel Bouquet). The legendary Impressionist is old and sick, and he grieves for his recently deceased wife. But he is still painting. A sizable staff of women runs the household. His son Coco (Thomas Doret), a boy of about 12, roams the estate.
A beautiful young woman named Andrée (Christa Théret) shows up. An aspiring actress, she is to be Pierre-Auguste's last model. At the end of their first session, she looks at the artist's canvas and discovers he has painted - lemons. It's one of a few wry moments in a largely somber film.
Much of the time Andrée is nude or seminude, and the servants are impatient with her. They know that this painter's relations with his models aren't always painterly. Théret is wonderful in this role, impetuous and lively. Indulge a graying Gen-Xer and let me say that with her red hair and her smudge of a mouth, Théret reminds me of Molly Ringwald at her luminous best, as John Hughes' muse.
Jean (Vincent Rottiers) arrives. A young military officer, he has been injured in the fighting. He convalesces at home and assists Pierre-Auguste with his painting. This means that like Pierre-Auguste, Jean spends a lot of time staring at the nude or seminude Andrée. Jean and Andrée commiserate about the way they look in Pierre-Auguste's paintings. Before long, the two are doing what comes naturally.
We know from end titles that Jean and Andrée collaborated on films. We also know, already, that Pierre-Auguste is one of the world's most famous painters, and that Jean made some of cinema's most acclaimed films. (Last year his 1939 opus The Rules of the Game fell to number four in the Sight & Sound poll, after Vertigo, Citizen Kane and Tokyo Story.)
That's a lot of artistry. But I think Renoir is more effective as a small-scale domestic drama than as a film about great artists. Films about great artists tend to lapse into clichés, the way Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris does when Ernest Hemingway blathers on about what it means to be a writer. And there is some of that in Renoir, as when Pierre-Auguste whispers, "You can't explain a painting - you have to FEEL it."
I like that we get to see paintings as they're being painted. It's a miraculous process. I wish I could do that.