★★★★ (out of 5 stars)
Most films labor furiously, trying to infuse every frame with passion. Renoir is content to sit still, creating effortless beauty in the style of its subject, painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
A French-language production set on the Riviera in 1915, this drama is both a love poem to Renoir’s art and a love triangle between the 74-year-old painter, his 21-year-old son Jean and a beautiful but mysterious model who becomes the muse of both father and son. Set during World War I, Renoir unfolds in a tranquil part of France touched only distantly by conflict. This striking contrast between serenity and hell is heightened by the fact that Jean is convalescing, waiting to return to the butchery of battle.
“It’s us – old people, the infirm – whom they should send to the front, in the mud and the trenches,” Pierre-Auguste says, fearing the loss of both Jean and Jean’s older brother. Yet he can only truly express emotion through his paintings, which he continues to create despite crippling arthritis. “I still have progress to make,” he tells Jean. “I’ll carry on till I collapse.”
Director Gilles Bourdos and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin have created a work worthy of its subject. Colors breathe and light glows almost as hauntingly as in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. But as with a painting that you admire at first glance, the film’s emotion – or lack thereof – fades after viewing. Perhaps it needed a bit less of Pierre-Auguste’s quiet beauty and more of the drama of Jean, who, after the war, became one of the world’s great film directors, producing such classics as The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion.
Despite those shortcomings, the film makes us appreciate anew the gifts that the Renoirs left us, while giving us a rare glimpse into their lives.