In 1915, when the film opens, the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, ravaged by rheumatoid arthritis and confined to a wheelchair, is working obsessively in his peaceful retreat on the Mediterranean. It’s then that he’s visited by a beautiful young woman named Andrée Heuschling, who claims to have been sent by the painter’s wife. “A mysterious girl sent by a dead woman,” says Renoir, who immediately hires her as muse and model. Meanwhile, outside the romantically sunlit glade where this movie remains, World War I rages on, and soon the painter’s son Jean comes clumping home to convalesce. The great Impressionist painter passes a woman to a son who will become film’s first humanist luminary, while outside the world is being dragged into modernity. It’s great material that this pleasant film can’t quite pull off.
Yet it’s worth watching. After a snoozy opening, Gilles Bourdos’s sensuous camerawork gathers steam. By the time Jean has recuperated enough to flirt with Andrée and project a silent film he purchases from a raconteur to show his father, we’re officially drawn in. Bourdos fills this part of his movie with subtle visual reminders from early Renoir films — the son deeply resembles French actor Jean Gabin, circa Grand Illusion — and the movie snakes slowly into our consciousness with its (probably false) insistence that suffering is short but beauty lasts forever.
In fact, the best parts of this poky little film are the gratuitously gorgeous ideas. Andrée sleeps naked on a couch, and Renoir’s youngest son, prepubescent but curious, sneaks into the room, picks up a handful of blue pigment, and blows it onto her. Later, five soldiers on leave float on the top of the ocean, seen from underwater as if they’re flying, as if they’re already dead. In the end, it’s a pretty picture with pretensions of rendering an age. It’s worth soaking in, though, even if it’s not equal to the figures in the portrait.