This year the annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema again screened an extensive range of contemporary French films at different locations in New York City. The series is sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance which promotes French films. Many screenings included appearances with insights from actors and directors.
One of the strongest films was “Renoir”, set in 1915 during a late period in the life of master Impressionist artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet). Though weakened by arthritis, Renoir continues to paint at his home on the French Riviera. Director Gilles Bourdos and cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee have given the setting the blazing sun and deep blue water of Renoir’s masterpieces. The painter’s wife has died and he is cared for by a group of female servants.
His son Jean (Vincent Rottiers), who in the future will become one of cinema’s major directors (“The Rules of the Game”), returns in crutches to convalesce after being wounded in World War I.
As his arthritic hands are bandaged by his female staff, Pierre-Auguste is a poignant figure as he continues to paint. He remains fascinated by the way the skin of a beautiful woman “soaks” the light. He tells his son, “The pain passes, but beauty remains”. Veteran actor Michel Bouquet (“Tous les Matins du Monde”) gives the painter an intense concentration for his work and for what he can still savor in his life.
His remains inspired by his newest young model Andrée (Christa Theret). Jean is also drawn to Andrée. The film also shows Jean’s growing interest in the cinema as early films are projected for the family. Andrée wants to become an actress and sees the new art form as a route for future success. Jean’s relationship with Andrée will continue beyond the time frame of the film.
Like Bouquet, Rottiers and Theret give a deep feeling to their characterizations. Jean comes into conflict with both his father and Andrée as he weighs reenlisting for the war, not wanting to abandon his comrades. The camaraderie among soldiers of different social classes is a subject of Jean Renoir’s masterful “Grand Illusion”.
Full of beautiful images, “Renoir” is an absorbing film on the endurance of art and how this art can be affected by family ties.
After the film, director Gilles Bourdos who co-wrote the screenplay said the idea of the film was inspired by a visit to the Impressionist paintings at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Bourdos said he liked getting lost there and felt he belonged. He wanted to make a film where the Mediterranean played a part. He was born in that area. He decided between Renoir and Cezanne and chose the former since Cezanne “ran from women” in his final years.
For him, a problem was how to recreate painting in the cinema. He said that since you can’t feel a painting on screen, he wanted to recreate what the artist was feeling when painting. He has succeeded in this. Bourdos said that the more Renoir suffered, the more his paintings were filled with pleasure, the more voluptuous.
Coming posts: Films with Isabelle Huppert, Jeanne Moreau, Audrey Tautou,
Kristin Scott Thomas, and Fabrice Luchini