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The story of the young woman who was the final muse to painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir and the first one to filmmaker Jean Renoir is artistically pivotal and possessing of a lovely symmetry, but it’s only mildly dramatic as rendered in the gently observant Renoir. Gilles Bourdos’ sun-soaked look at the flame-haired teenager who showed up one day in Cagnes-sur-Mer in 1915 and became the subject of the aged sensualist’s ripe final works plausibly brings its subjects alive while displaying an intelligent appreciation for their individual needs at the time. But while the creative careers of the father and son were staggering, not all that much seems at stake in this film, which comes off as a pleasant but mild thing. Goldwyn Films acquired U.S. rights in Cannes and could enjoy a measure of theatrical success by targeting artistically inclined older audiences for whom the Renoir name remains hallowed.
Andree Heuschling was only 15 when, at the suggestion of Henri Matisse, she entered the Renoir household in the south of France and gave a fresh jolt of vibrant life to the painter’s late work. Then 74, the wizened old man had just been widowed, and the film vividly depicts how Pierre-Auguste, confined to a wheelchair, needed to have his arthritic hands taped to be able to hold a brush.
For her part, Andree’s hair and complexion already possessed the sort of rosy flush of sun-kissed youthfulness with which the painter endowed his subjects whether they had it or not; similarly, her body’s voluptuous fleshiness required no embellishment on his part. In short, she was the ideal model for his late-period nudes. As the artist (Michel Bouquet) enthuses here, “Her skin soaks up light.”
As depicted in the film, Andree (Christa Theret) is a blithe young thing, very much in the French mold, who at least pretends she would just as soon take a job as a bar girl if it paid better than what one of the most famous artists in the country can offer her. Rude to and resented by the many female workers at the house, many of whom have posed for old master themselves, she has a somewhat raspy voice and does nothing to ingratiate herself.
But it doesn’t matter, as the boss is happy, spending his days in the verdant environs of the house or down by the river creating idealized portraits of florescent youth painted by a man whose blood clearly still runs hot, even in his crippled state.
Also hobbled, by a serious World War I battlefield injury that nearly cost him his left leg, is the artist’s 21-year-old son Jean (Vincent Rottiers), who arrives home on crutches to convalesce at the film’s half-hour point. Much adored by his father, unlike his disaffected teenage son Claude, the young officer remains at this stage an unformed fellow; proper, socially somewhat maladroit and not entirely confident with women. Jean “dabbles,” according to his papa, not yet sure of his path in life and at the moment only anxious to recover and return his much-beloved comrades-in-arms in the Alpine Hunters 6th Battalion, who have sacrificed so much already.
Although there is incident in the film’s second half — Jean and Andree soon pair up, Pierre-Auguste paints more masterpieces, Jean discovers the movies, Andree has additional flare-ups — it doesn’t build to the level of compelling drama, leaving the film in a quiet, temperate realm that scarcely makes the pulse race, the bodacious Theret’s frequent nudity notwithstanding.
In fact, Andree ultimately becomes a rather unappealing character, emerging from behind her surface allure as rather coarse and calculating. Intentionally or not, this prefigures the largely off-putting screen persona she eventually exhibited under the adopted name Catherine Hessling as the leading lady of a half-dozen silent Jean Renoir films.
The estimable veteran Bouquet is entirely credible as the old Renoir, who at one point is challenged to stand on his feet by his doctor and, to his great surprise, is able to do so. Rottiers possesses much sharper features than Jean Renoir ever had even in his pre-portly days but reasonably captures the young man’s personal and professional uncertainty.
Visually, the film is lovely, if unostentatious, with Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee (Flowers of Shanghai and several others for Hou Hsiao-hsien, In the Mood for Love for Wong Kar-wai) sensitively capturing the Mediterranean light and landscapes.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Un Certain Regard (Goldwyn Films, U.S.)
Production: Wild Bunch, Mars Films, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Michel Bouquet, Christa Theret, Vincent Rottiers, Thomas Doret, Romane Bohringer
Director: Gilles Bourdos
Screenwriters: Jerome Tonnerre, Gilles Bourdos, with the collaboration of Michel Spinosa, from the work “Le Tableau Amoureux” by Jacques Renoir
Producers: Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier
Executive producer: Christine De Jekel
Director of photography: Mark Ping Bing Lee
Production designer: Benoit Barouh
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Editor: Yannick Kergoat
Music: Alexandre Desplat
International sales: Wild Bunch
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