Renoir’s key on-screen ingredient is orange sunlight—confirmation that filmmaker Gilles Bourdos isn’t interested in remaking Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, but rather Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Women Bathers. Filmed on location at the Renoir family estate in Cagnes-sur-Mer, where France touches the Mediterranean, Bourdos’s film is as such a long string of picnics, portrait sessions, elaborate dinners, and countryside rituals, filtered through a svelte aesthetic pleasantness that ultimately corrodes its larger interests.
When Jean (Vincent Rottiers) returns from the trenches of WWI with a bum leg, he falls swiftly in love with a voluptuous redhead, Andrée Heuschling (Christa Theret), the latest young muse for his slowly dying father, Pierre-Auguste (Michel Bouquet). Andrée is a provocateur who wants a bohemian life, and as Jean becomes obsessed with both her and the movies at the same time, the film seeks to be an epigraph of a special moment in French cinematic history. (He puts a screening together at the estate, and while Pierre-August practically dozes off, Jean whispers to Andrée that he did this for her.) Jean is open and volatile, while his father is wizened and mysterious; both compete subtly for Andrée’s attention, but even though she gives herself to Jean romantically (and, it’s worth noting, mostly off screen), the nuts and bolts of her “working” relationship with Pierre-Auguste receive more screen time.
As one French legend embodying another, Bouquet shrouds himself in the old master painter’s arthritic stiffness and massive beard. As written and performed, Pierre-Auguste leaves his company—sons, caretakers, models—perpetually wanting more intimacy than they get, one exchange at a time. Easing off of questioning the man and onto the legacy of the painter, Bourdos uses a radiant and nostalgic palette, and the film seems ultimately more comfortable with him than his son. A good dozen times more handsome than his real-life counterpart, Rottiers comes off boyish, temperamental, and humorless—as unimaginative and spineless a shriveling down as has taken place in a biopic since The Motorcycle Diaries. If dislodging the myths of the Renoirs from their real-life personalities was the filmmakers’ whole point, the gestalt stand-ins they’ve drawn aren’t nearly interesting enough to warrant even a little comparison. The resultant experience is one of breathlessly anticipated dramatic conflict that never really arises, but can’t help but feel untrue to life in its overarching blandness.
Much hay is made around the question of whether the old master painter is, as expected, sleeping with Andrée; the film is less a physical love triangle than emotional one, with the actress-model as the baton being passed from one generation of Renoir to another, culminating with a toast handed down from father to son in approval. Ultimately, the only thing Bourdos seizes on with any intelligent conviction is a rarified, nostalgic type of beauty. Proliferated for its own sake, that becomes a flourish the younger Renoir would have despised, for its shallowness and lack of chest hair. But if closer to the elder Renoir’s work, the film never properly achieves its magisterial stillness, its anti-pretension. And so, Renoir approaches the towering legacies of its nominal heroes with such gawky reverence that its art is, held up to theirs, pretty much worthless.