Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 19, 2013 2:34 pm 
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Partial beginnings and endings in the golden South of France

An aging father tormented by arthritis and his son wounded in WWI are both charmed by young feminine beauty in the new French film Renoir. It's a beautifully shot tour of the last days of the great painter Auguste and a youthful and an uncertain moment in the life of his celebrated filmmaker son Jean -- a more conventional film for director Gilles Bourdos as well as his strongest thus far. His continued use of the Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing and the composer Alexandre Desplat contribute to a languidly paced but visually pleasing and atmospheric period film that will appeal to the mature art-house patron for whom the film was bought up by Samuel Goldwyn Films for US distribution at Cannes' Un Certain Regard series. This is not a great film, but it's visually and almost tactilely voluptuous in ways only a French film about these two Renoirs could dare to be.

Renoir generally works quite well, if you accept the languidness, but it sends us contradictory signals. Since it centers on the quintessential painter of voluptuous women and joie de vire, it is appropriately suffused with the warm gold of the French Midi caressing the creamy skin and voluptuous but perky breasts of young women. But this beauty becomes irrelevant when we realize that its three men, ailing, 70-something Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet), his 21-year-old son and future filmmaker Jean (Vincent Rottiers) and his very young son and future cinematographer Claude (Thomas Doret) are cool and cheerless types. They are withdrawn in the case of Jean, angry and stubborn when comes to young Claude -- while meanness and curmugeonliness dominate Auguste, who, though in a wheelchair, is still "Patron," the boss and withholding taskmaster everyone wants to please but fears. The worlds of both the painter and the director as we know them are full of warmth and action, but that of Bourdos's film, if not as dormant and patience-straining as Jacques Rivette's La belle noiseuse, is largely a static one. The film is not so much a train of events as a period of waiting, a series of tableaux vivants.

This is, perhaps, because the film is set at a moment that, though war is raging off somewhere, here by the Mediterranean and for this particular family, floats between events. It is both "too early and too late," as its titular protagonist, the now feeble but constantly painting artist, says as he looks over at his lovely and spirited new model, "Dédé," Andrée Heuschling (Christa Theret). Not only is Auguste at last too old to sleep with his models as he formerly was very much wont to do, but when Jean arrives, a lieutenant convalescing from a serious wound in the leg, it may be too early for him and Dédé, even though they do become lovers. Once he's recovered, Jean feels he must go back to help his "comrades" who have died beside him by reenlisting in the air force, and he leaves her behind. He was to return to her, the final titles tell us, and she to become his chief actress for years. But at this point though he's made a film he still thinks he's nobody, and doesn't have any commitment other than to the war. Maybe Claude, or Coco, makes the most progress: before the movie ends, he seems to have won the friendship and recognition of his aging dad.

Most viewers will focus on the beautiful women, who hover around Auguste -- he keeps doing paintings in which they "float" in the landscape, and he just likes to have his pretty young nude models around, painting them in different poses from the ones they're actually in. But take a look at the men. If you have seen him in films like In the Beginninig, Last Winter, or I'm Glad My Mother Is Alive, you know that Vincent Rottiers, who is Belgian, has an austere, chiseled face, a haunting manner, and hypnotic eyes. As for Thomas Doret, also Belgian, who plays little Claude, or Coco, Augueste's youngest son, he was the intensely driven boy in the Dardennes' The Kid with the Bike and he is a riveting presence, despite his small size. "I'm nobody," he tells Dédé when she arrives. "I'm an orphan." The subtext of this film, a tremendous one alas left undeveloped by the screenwriter, is that it's not easy being the son of a famous father. Coco is even confused in filmographies with Claude the younger, son of Pierre, and therefore Jean's nephew, because both worked in the cinema. This screennplay does not clarify such issues or even tell us anything about what became of this headstrong boy. As for the 85-year-old Michel Bouquet, as Auguste, he has great assurance -- all the acting here is fine-- but he is also opaque, without being especially interesting. His characterization (as written) is a string of gruff remarks, pontifications about art and life, howling nightmares, and shots of swollen hands doused with healing liquids or tied with strips of cloth. Nothing goes very deep here, though we're not quite sure how it could with this material.

If this meandering, undramatic film has a center it must be Dédé and the sweet but sad Jean. Dédé disappears for a while when Jean declares his decision to join the airforce. Jean goes looking for her after a while, but from here on the transitions become weak and the action stumbles. Dédé, who wants to be an actress, is sprightly but unformed, though two things are clear: her affection for the old man and her love of Jean. But where is the ebullient Jean who made The Rules of the Game and The River? Inside this thin man there is a fat man gesturing to be let out.

Renoir debuted in May 2012 at Cannes and opened in France 2 January 2013 to good reviews (3.4 press from 19 sources), but critics noted a leaning toward the bland and pretty. Cahiers du Cinéma's critic Charlotte Garson quotes Auguste's declaration "Moi, il me faut du vivant," "As for me, I need something alive," and adds "so do we, and we don't find it in this uselesss overindulgence in Provençal landscape and milky skin." US release date as yet uknown.

Screened for this review as a part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center in collaboration with UniFrance, which runs Feb. 28-Mar. 10, 2013.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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