RENOIR (Gilles Bourdos). 107 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (April 12). For venues and times, see listings. Rating: NNNN
Gilles Bourdos's Renoir is an absorbing, atmospheric film that on the surface is as leisurely and calm as some of the sun-dappled landscapes in the Impressionist master's canvases.
It's 1915 at the Renoir estate on the French Riviera, and the arthritic, wheelchair-bound Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet), still mourning his wife's death, begins working with a new model, a fiery aspiring actor named Andrée (Crista Theret). Soon, she begins shaking things up in the staid household inhabited by maids who were once Renoir models and the painter's sullen youngest son (Thomas Doret).
When another son, Jean (Vincent Rottiers), arrives home wounded from the war, it's not long before he and Andrée are flirting, with the woman urging him to find a calling and pursue it. (Of course we know he'll go on to become a brilliant film director.)
Rather than go all melodramatic, Bourdos chooses to examine big themes like the nature of art. When Jean, still traumatized by the war, asks his father why he doesn't depict dark subjects, the older man says paintings should be "pleasant and cheerful."
Alexandre Desplat's shimmering score and Mark Ping Bing Lee's cinematography evoke the setting with gorgeous dabs of colour and sound, and the performances are subtle and effective. The film has a quiet, cumulative power that creeps up on you.
One of the most memorable images is of a group of women carrying two men across a river - a lovely, bittersweet metaphor acknowledging the work women did in the lives of two of France's most celebrated male artists.