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Figure study

May 24, 2013


May 24--Renoir, drama, rated R, in French with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles

Director Gilles Bourdos' quiet, observant Renoir, based on a book by Jacques Renoir, great-grandson of the Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, is a beguiling film. Events covered in this beautifully shot biopic occurred late in the life of the great artist, soon after the death of his wife, when a young model named Andree Heuschling (Christa Theret) arrived to work for him. Much of the film is a study of Heuschling through the eyes of the painter and other men of the Renoir household.

First we meet the angry, brooding Claude (Thomas Doret), the youngest son of Pierre-Auguste. He has a lot to be angry about. His mother is dead, his older brothers are away fighting in World War I, and his father, the only familial presence in his life, is distant and cold, speaking to the boy only to scold him. It is to his credit that Bourdos, who also wrote the screen- play, steers clear of the puppy love that a boy of Claude's age might feel for a tenderhearted beauty like Heuschling. Claude is more jealous than enamored. He comes to see Heuschling as a competitor for his father's attention and love.

Pierre-Auguste (Michel Bouquet) regards the model with an artist's eye. The film never quite ventures into the realms one expects, avoiding all suggestions of a May/December romance between its leads. Pierre-Auguste simply needs a model so he can continue to paint. She teases him at one point, attempting to gauge the depth of his interest in her, and tells him she has found another lover. Pierre-Auguste merely replies that she should get back to work. The beauty of her nude form arouses him, but he is content to simply capture it on the canvas. He seems less interested in depicting her likeness, however, than in her poses and gestures. A great deal of screen time is given to Theret in the nude, and the camera seems content to linger languidly, but not gratuitously, on her body.

At this point in his life, the artist is racked with debilitating arthritis that has mangled his hands to the point where he needs assistants to squeeze out tubes of paint for him. Despite the suggestion that some of his female servants have had sexual relations with him in the past, their role is largely as nurses, administering to his comforts and massaging his poor hands.

Although Renoir's pace is slow, quite a lot happens in the film, and Bourdos seems content to tell this tale through glances and suggestion.

The Renoir family's days are spent on outings to the countryside. Alexandre Desplat's score insinuates itself throughout, adding tones of dramatic tension where otherwise there would be none. How much stress can there be if your days are spent on picnics in the south of France, sketching beautiful nude young women who lie in dappled sunlight while other women frolic in a nearby river?

In the midst of this summer idyll, filmed much like an Impressionist painting, comes Jean Renoir (Vincent Rottiers), the future filmmaker and Pierre- Auguste's middle son. Jean, a soldier, is home to convalesce from an injury sustained in the war. He and Heuschling soon fall in love. Considering the level of nudity in the film, it's a wonder that their love scenes are so modest. Rottiers plays Jean as a spoiled rich kid who doesn't realize he's a spoiled rich kid. When Heuschling reminds him of this, it seems to him a small revelation.

The character of Heuschling is underdeveloped, and while this seems intentional, it is at times a hindrance to the film. She is no less based on a historical figure than her male counterparts. Heuschling went on to marry Jean and to act in his silent films under the name Catherine Hessling, but in Renoir we see her only through the eyes of Claude, Jean, and Pierre-Auguste. Heuschling reveals little of her own past, stating at one point that she is an artist, a dancer, an actress, and a singer. It is unclear if she has really been any of those things, and there are suggestions that she has worked as a prostitute. Pierre-Auguste doesn't seem to mind and states that all women deserve the same respect, regardless of whether they are queens or whores, a backhanded compliment if ever there was one.

Theret plays Heuschling as a free spirit, and she quickly takes a liking to her easy lifestyle among the prestigious Renoirs. This leads to the film's one real dramatic moment, when older servants put her in her place, reminding her that most of them came to work as maids for Pierre-Auguste in the vain hope of becoming models and that those who came as models instead became maids. Heuschling's rebellion, while small, marks her as someone with too much self-respect to let that become her fate.

Much of Renoir is centered on the presence of femininity in the lives of men at various stages. It is observant in the way it regards women through men's eyes, and it encompasses many honest emotions. Claude is perplexed by his father's interest in nudes but quickly comes to regard Heuschling similarly as an object. It seems that none of the Renoir men truly see her for herself. Renoir may suffer for its sketchy treatment of its female characters, but as a film of perceptions and nuances, it lingers in the mind. A final shot perhaps makes it plain why Bourdos opted not to film a chronological treatment that traces the elder Renoir's life from young boy to old man. With the presence of Pierre-Auguste, Claude, and Jean under one roof, he didn't need to.


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