Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2013: Renoir

Renoir (2012)
Directed by Gilles Bourdos
Starring Michel Bouquet as Auguste Renoir, Christa Theret as Andrée, Vincent Rottiers as Jean Renoir, Thomas Doret as Coco,Romane Bohringer as Gabrielle Renard

Renoir is based on the last years of the artists life while he was living at Cagnes-sur-Mer during World War I in 1915. Haunted by the loss of his wife and concerned for his two eldest sons Pierre and Jean who were fighting in WWI, the artist is tormented by the mental anguish and physical pain of the arthritis that is crippling him.

Andrée Heuschling is a young, beautiful girl who insists she has been sent to Renoir's house by his late wife to be his model. Apparently it was fellow artist Henri Matisse that actually sent the girl, seeing in her a flawless beauty so apparent in Renoir's work. She is to be his last model and his muse. Their relationship is playful, humourous and a bond grows between them that is beautifully captured in the scene where Andrée insists on performing the task of washing his hands, a task he claims is to ugly for her to do. There is a love there which I choose to interpret as paternal, although Renoir was thought to have had affairs with his models.

When the artists son Jean returns home from the war on convalescence after injuring his leg he falls in love with Andrée, enamored by her wild spirit and big dreams of a life in film. A struggle ensues between father and son for the attention of the young girl, although it feels as if each desire something different from her. While Renoir feels he needs her in order to continue painting, Jean appears to need her in order to continue living. This, however, does not stop him from re-enlisting in the air force as soon as his leg is healed, causing a massive rift between himself and Andrée as well as his father who has no desire to bury a son. By far the most poignant scene is when Jean is saying goodbye to his father who rises from his wheelchair so he can properly embrace his son. Tear threaten the eyes of both and there is a sense that in this moment, perhaps for the first time, the two men understand each other.

Having promised Andrée he would return and they would make movies together, he heads back to the war and this is where the movie ends, somewhat abruptly. We are told at the end that Renoir died in 1919 and that Jean did indeed return and marry Andrée. They went on to make several films together, he directing while she acted under the name of Catherine Hessling. Following their separation in 1930 Jean went on to be a famous director and on the occasion of his death Orson Welles wrote 'Jean Renoir: The Greatest of all Directors'. Andrée's career unfortunately declined after the split and she died alone in poverty the same year as Jean, 1979.

When I first read a description of this film it came across as a story of two men in love with the same woman, fighting over their right to claim her. That's not how I interpreted Renoir. It is the story of a family, torn apart by the grief of loosing a wife and mother, it's the story of the bond between brothers and the alienation of the artistic temperament, it's about a young girl full of dreams for whom reality is a whole war away, a son who struggles to feel closer to his father, a father who struggles to hold on to his son, of two men who love the same girl but in entirely different ways. Most of all, however, it's a story about the final years of, if not a great man, indisputably a great artist.  

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