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‘Renoir’ paints merely a surface portrait of a great artist


Renoir Michel Bouquet

Andrée Christa Théret

Jean Vincent Rottiers

Coco Thomas Doret

Samuel Goldwyn Films presents a film directed by Gilles Bourdos. Written by Bourdos and Jerome Tonnerre. In French and Italian, with English subtitles. Running time: 111 minutes. Rated R (for sequences of art-related nudity and brief language). Opening Friday at Landmark Century and Evanston CineArts 6.

Updated: May 28, 2013 6:29PM

‘Renoir” brings natural expectations of a biopic set in Paris during the 19th-century heyday of Impressionism, with its namesake mingling with Claude Monet and other artistic luminaries of that now-celebrated era.

But what director Gilles Bourdos has actually tried to create is a more complicated, offbeat and in some ways, artistically ambitious film. Set in 1915 during World War I when the famed painter (Michel Bouquet) is 74 years old and stricken with rheumatoid arthritis, “Renoir” depicts the artist defiantly continuing to work in isolation on a lush estate along the Côte d’Azur with the help of devoted female servants.

The reality-based story, which occurs over just a few months, is sparked by the mysterious arrival of the sensual Andrée Heuschling (Christa Théret), who quickly becomes the artist’s model and muse, propelling the widower into a period of renewed creativity. Shortly thereafter, Renoir’s 21-year-old middle son, Jean (Vincent Rottiers), returns home from the war to convalesce briefly after nearly losing his leg. Not surprisingly, he falls under Andrée’s spell.

The film is clearly meant to be a kind of atmospheric study of psychologically charged relationships among these three complex if fugitive characters, with the contrast between the idyllic landscape and the distant war adding a further potentially telling dimension. But it never quite comes off.

Too often, there’s more of a feeling of intended meaning than actual meaning. With the help of cinematographer Mark Pink Bing Lee, Bourdos tries to imbue shots of the verdant, light-infused landscape or paint slowly diffusing into a jar of turpentine with import, but these efforts feel forced.

Much of the problem lies with the screenplay by Bourdos and Jerome Tonnerre, which overreaches with its multilayered themes but then leaves the characters opaque and distant.

The portrayal of the elder Renoir, for example, is simplistic and shallow. The viewer never receives any insight into what made him one of the leading Impressionists or how the florid nudes he is painting at this late point in his career fit into his broader oeuvre.

Instead, the artist comes off as a kind of out-of-touch curmudgeon who makes pronouncements about art that are the tired platitudes expected of lesser artists: “You can’t explain a painting — you have to feel it.”

Much the same can be said of the other two main characters. Andreé is apparently meant to be a kind of modern, independent woman, but she too often seems merely petulant and self-involved. And it is hard to envision how the listless Jean Renoir, as depicted here, would develop into one of the great film directors.

That said, the well-cast actors in the central roles do their best to humanize and fill out the underdrawn characters, especially Bouquet, who brings a compelling presence and intensity to the elder Renoir.

Bourdos’ high-minded aspirations are obvious, but his visually satisfying film is dramatically elusive.

Kyle MacMillan is a locally based free-lance writer.

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