If you watch the trailer for “Renoir” – a new period drama from French filmmaker Gilles Bourdos – a variety of adjectives are bound to come to mind: conventional, humdrum, lackluster. Sure, they’re trying to sell the story of one of the all-time great painters in a mere two minutes, but nothing about it grabs your attention – let alone, compels you to sit through the actual film. Luckily, this is not exactly the case for the movie itself, which is exquisite to look at but unfortunately devoid of any real insight into Pierre-Auguste Renoir. You come wishing to learn about the artist and his work, but instead leave dwelling on the film’s more engaging supporting characters.
The primary player in this drama is not actually part of the Renoir family, but an aspiring actress named Andrée Heuschling (Christa Theret). Andrée – often called DeeDee – comes to work as Renoir’s model at the request of his wife, who we soon discover had recently passed away before the young woman’s arrival. Bathed in golden sunlight with ginger locks cascading down her bare shoulders, DeeDee becomes Renoir’s muse, oddly enough, bearing a striking resemblance to a young Kate Winslet in James Cameron’s “Titanic.”
Aside from her stunning looks, Theret possesses a magnetic presence greater than that of her costars – conveying more in a single look than the majority of her dramatic dialogue scenes (which she handles with a similar amount of poise and confidence). She makes you forget the film’s rather dull proceedings and the scenes without her frequently drag as you await her return. Like Alicia Vikander in last year’s equally wish-washy “A Royal Affair,” she is blessed with an undeniable star quality that will hopefully translate to a prosperous career in American films, if she so chooses.
Historical dramas tend to be at their very best when they don’t ambitiously seek to span a lifetime, but instead hone in on a specific period. Benoît Jacquot’s “Farewell My Queen” – which is arguably the best period piece of the last few years – only examines a few days of Marie Antoinette’s dwindling reign, while the Oscar-winning “Lincoln” simply devotes itself to one crucial decision of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.
“Renoir” mostly succeeds in this way, in that its scope is not overly ambitious and it is in no rush to cram in multiple storylines, but that is its fundamental flaw, too. Aside from a few outbursts about how DeeDee feels underappreciated or wishes that Auguste’s son, Jean, would not return to the battlefront, there is very little drama to get invested in. It would be perfectly acceptable if this was a character study, but alas, the majority of these individuals are as good as strangers after the nearly two-hour running time is up.
We watch as Auguste uses delicate brushstrokes to make his canvas come alive and offers choice words of wisdom about his process, but we never truly understand what inspires him or makes him tick. Yes, we are told that he often sleeps with his models and enjoys painting naked flesh, but are given nothing beyond what couldn’t be read in a textbook or seen on a History Channel special. Not to discredit Michel Bouquet’s understated performance, as he is clearly more than capable to embody the aging artist.
Instead, it seems more like a problem of screenwriters unsure about what kind of story they wish to tell. Auguste was so frequently pushed to the background in favor of the young lovebirds DeeDee and Jean, I often found myself forgetting he was even a character in what was seemingly their film. A surface-level view may be entertaining for awhile, but I feel that such a legendary artist deserves a biopic that genuinely seems interested in exploring his various idiosyncrasies and more intimate moments.
“Renoir” is based on a fictional biography written by Auguste’s great-grandson, Jacques. Although that may have been easier to dramatize, I’ll hold out hope for a film adapted from his son Jean’s “My Father,” which is considered the truly definitive biography of Auguste. Until then, this should serve as a pleasant yet largely forgettable alternative.
“Renoir” opens this Friday, April 26, at Harkins Camelview 5 in Scottsdale.