French import Renoir, opening this weekend at the Tampa Theatre, is the anti-summer blockbuster. A stately period piece set in the French Riviera, the movie is a slow, quiet look at the relationship between painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet), his son Jean (Vincent Rottiers) and the actress Andrée Heuschling (Christa Theret). Director Gilles Bourdos, working with cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee, creates images so breathtaking you’re liable to forgive the tedious slow burn of the story.
Set in 1915, Renoir opens with Andrée arriving at the Renoir estate in search of modeling work after an invite from Mrs. Renoir. Unbeknownst to the girl, the Mrs. has since passed away and left Renoir heartbroken, but he takes a liking to the sassy young model and starts painting her. This leads to an artistic renaissance for the painter that Art History majors are still studying today. The housemaids and Renoir’s youngest son Coco (Thomas Doret) are less than impressed, though, finding the new girl arrogant or assuming she’s a tramp. Coco goes so far as to point out that Renoir’s previous models usually ended up in his bed.
Coco had the right idea, but the wrong Renoir, as Pierre-Auguste’s son Jean, off fighting in World War I when the film begins, suddenly arrives back home nursing a severe leg injury earned at the front. Jean and Andrée hit it off, bonding over their dislike of how the old man paints them (“He always makes me too fat,” she says; “He always makes me look like a girl,” he answers) and soon they are lovers. This complicates matters, and when Jean re-enlists in the armed forces it drives Andrée away, much to the chagrin of Pierre-Auguste, who has lost his muse.
The drama in Renoir is mostly of the understated sort, with characters who that would rather quietly sigh then get riled up. The exception is Andrée, who’s a redheaded firecracker that acts out in dramatic ways. (Hey, she is an actress.) The movie milks Renoir’s physical frailty to great effect (his hands, my God, his hands!), and is meticulous in the way it regards the maids doting on the rapidly aging patriarch. I appreciated the performances and the period detail, but the beautiful images are the real appeal here. This movie will look glorious when projected using the Tampa Theatre’s fancy new digital set-up.
My guess is that Renoir will be an acquired taste for moviegoers, especially the younger ones who expect whiplash editing and broadly played emotional outbursts. For those looking for some counterprogramming to Star Trek and Iron Man, Renoir will work just fine. I guarantee you won’t see a more beautifully photographed film this summer.