A beautiful young woman riding a bicycle through the French countryside, her billowing auburn skirt and jacket the color of her tucked hair, opens the film "Renoir" with the promise of a sumptuous visual journey.
It keeps that promise with attention to period detail, artful framing and, most astoundingly, a consistency of color, light and even form evocative of the great Impressionist's paintings.
The opening sequence also sets up one of many contrasts that underlie the movie. It is 1915 and France is in the midst of the first modern war that would devour Europe. The rider passes gray-clothed refugees and glides beneath an effigy in a military uniform hanging from a tree.
When she walks through the gate of the Renoir estate, she encounters a boy and asks who he is. "No one. An orphan," he answers. Later we learn he is one of three Renoir sons, two of whom have been wounded at the front.
2 1/2 stars = Average
Michel Bouquet, Christa Theret, Vincent Rottiers.
R for sequences of art-related nudity and brief language.
Renoir (seminal French actor Michel Bouquet) is in the winter of his life, crippled by arthritis, when we meet him in his window-filled studio set within the rolling hills and bright blue waters of the French Riviera.
The woman -- Andree Heuschling, played by Christa Theret -- has come seeking a position as an artist's model. She claims she was sent by Mrs. Renoir. But the Mrs. is dead. "My wife sent you?" the wheelchair-bound artist asks. Yes, the woman affirms. "A girl from out of nowhere ... sent by a dead woman" he says with a reflective smile. After a pause he tells her, "I think we're going to work together."
The model's pluck and drive become evident during this first encounter. When she later sees that Renoir has painted lemons and not her, she questions wasting her time sitting for him. When he asks his housekeeper to "give her five francs for her trouble" she accepts the bill, says "I cost 10 francs," and leaves.
The film is grounded upon Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), and posits that Heuschling's appearance revitalized his interest in painting after his wife died and his health declined. But the main narrative it explores is the model's relationship with convalescing son Jean (Vincent Rottiers) and the influence that has upon his developing interest in filmmaking.
Woven throughout are moments of insight to the way the artist thinks, as when the nude Andree, reclining on a divan, asks, "Boss, mind if I move?" and he answers, "If I minded, I'd paint apples." Comparing himself to an artist friend who paints fruit and wooden mannequins, he says, "I need living, breathing material. What interests me is skin. The velvety texture of a young girl's skin."
There is much to like about this film, but that's also its fault. Sufficiently present to be subthemes are issues such as the untenable cost of war for both soldiers and civilians, the silent suffering of the aging body, the transcendency of art and inspiration.
There is a flirtation with magic realism; a visit to a cabaret out of the German Weimar Republic; compact episodes of lyricism as symbol, as when the auburn paint of a brush dipped into a clear glass of water flows and twists like long locks of hair during a scene when Jean places a necklace upon the posing Andree.
Overall, I wanted more. Or less.
Spoiler alert: An epilogue informs that Jean Renoir returned safely from his second tour at the front, married Andree and began making movies. She was his muse and lead actress until they separated in 1931. They both died in 1979, she forgotten and in poverty and he a famed Hollywood filmmaker.
Opens today at the Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill. In French with English subtitles.moviereviews
Much to explore in the French artist's life, family and times.Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: email@example.com or 412-263-1925.