Painted Up

In 'Renoir,' the most important sense is sight

The commercial French films of today may not be breaking any aesthetic or narrative boundaries, but they still play well to those unnerved by the mayhem and loudness of American movies.

Director Gilles Bourdos’ Renoir celebrates tradition—even if it is a tradition critiqued from the point of view of the rebellious three sons of the master artist. The action takes place during World War I. Pierre Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet) is old and diseased in body, his hands almost too gnarled by arthritis to hold a paintbrush. The canvases are his last expression of summery idylls.

In person, however, the artist has blunt, almost Germanic manners, even if old Renoir insists things worked out for the best. He started off as a painter on porcelain for the dishware industry, and he’d still be doing that work if industrialization hadn’t ended the craft. Ultimately, he reasons, life is best if you drift like a floating cork down a stream.

This passive, peasant viewpoint drives his three sons mad. The youngest, Claude (Thomas Doret), called Coco, is on the verge of open rebellion; he’s been in a smoldering adolescent fury ever since his mother died. Coco has a new cause for his wrath: the arrival of a new model for the old man’s brush, a tough yet refulgent demiactress named Andrée (Christa Theret). In one scene, Coco’s sexual jealousy at seeing this red-haired trollop nude on a daily basis worsens his mood, especially when asked to arrange props around her.

Andrée also captures the interest of older brother Jean Renoir (Vincent Rottiers) when he returns from the battlefields with a scarlet Y-shaped scar on his thigh. We don’t know him as a film director yet, just as there’s no indication that Coco will someday be the cinematographer Claude Renoir.

Lensed by Mark Ping Bing Lee (In the Mood for Love), Renoir believes that there’s no underrating the pleasure of watching other people paint, and of seeing a sullen if nicely built woman posing in the humidity of the morning.

‘Renoir’ is playing at the Rafael Film Center and Summerfield Cinemas.