Golden light and color fill the scenes in “Renoir,” a new film opening this weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. Directed by Gilles Bourdot, it traces the final years of the great Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir in the south of France. The movie is filmed on the Renoir estate at Cagnes-sur-Mer.
Renoir, played by Michel Bouquet, is long established as a successful and wealthy painter, but he is plagued by rheumatoid arthritis as World War I rages beyond his idyllic enclave. Two of his sons have gone off to fight, leaving behind a resentful and surly young Claude (Thomas Doret) to stay with his father and a household of women who care for them.
A lovely young woman, Andrée (Christa Theret) bicycles to the estate, looking for work as the artist’s model. The first person she meets is Claude, who misinforms her that he is an orphan and that his mother, who suggested Andrée come, is dead. Soon Andrée has mesmerized Pierre-Auguste with her red tresses and lustrous skin and breasts.
When son Jean Renoir (Vincent Rottier), the future filmmaker, arrives home to recuperate from a war wound, he, too, falls for Andrée. Despite the potential conflict suggested by this triangle, the movie proceeds at a leisurely pace, celebrating the sun-filled landscape where the senior Renoir paints and the sensuous nudity of his subjects. Disabled though he may be, pere Renoir remains firmly in charge, while Jean defers respectfully to his father.
Andrée turns into a bit of a provocateur, challenging Jean to become a filmmaker and smashing Renoir-painted dishes in defiance of her boss’s authority. Although comments on Renoir’s art appear, they come across more like asides than real insights in the film.
In one of his painter’s pronouncements, the painter suggests, “What controls the structure is not the line, it’s the color.” Another, “Renoirs refuse to paint the world black,” implicitly contradicts a darker view of the world that Jean Renoir has experienced as a soldier. Since the time frame of the film predates Jean’s career as a filmmaker who goes on to make one of the world’s greatest anti-war films, “Grand Illusion,” viewers are left to their own devices in making the connection “Renoir” implies.
Class tensions are also suggested but not pursued. The senior Renoir thinks of himself as a worker more than an artist, a man who came from a working class family and began by painting on dinnerware in a porcelain factory. After Andrée and Jean become lovers, she calls him a rich boy, and she aspires to her own success as an actress, telling him, “I’m not spending my life with a plate painter.”
The senior Renoir remains an enigmatic figure, most closely characterized by his statement, “You can’t explain a painting; you have to feel it.” Although he opposes Jean’s decision to re-enlist as a soldier, he does nothing to prevent it.
The strength of “Renoir” comes in its romantic depiction of the landscapes that have made so many Impressionist paintings famous and in its gorgeous lighting and cinematography. As a slow-moving, painterly tableau itself, “Renoir” celebrates a bygone era, leaving to others any exploration of the disturbing consequences of the “Great War” and its impact on the world in general and art in particular. It’s still a trip into the past worth taking.
“Renoir,” Friday, May 10, 4 pm; May 11, 7:30 pm; May 12, 7:30 pm; M.V. Film Center, Vineyard Haven. $12; $7 members. mvfilmsociety.com.