Christa Theret as Andree Heuschling and Michel Bouquet as Pierre-Auguste Renoir in RENOIR, a film directed by Gilles Bourdos. Picture courtesy Fidelite Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films. All rights reserved.


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  • Guy Ribes
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Renoir (2012/2013)

Opened: 03/29/2013 Limited

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Genre: French Drama

Rated: R for sequences of art-related nudity and brief language.


Set on the French Riviera in the summer of 1915, Gilles Bourdos' lushly atmospheric drama RENOIR tells the story of celebrated Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, in declining health at age 74, and his middle son Jean, who returns home to convalesce after being wounded in World War I.

The elder Renoir is filled with a new, wholly unexpected energy when a young girl miraculously enters his world. Blazing with life, radiantly beautiful, Andree will become his last model, and the wellspring of a remarkable rejuvenation. At the same time, Jean also falls under the spell of the free-spirited young Andree. Their beautiful home and majestic countryside grounds reverberate with familial intrigue, as both Renoirs, pere et fils, become smitten with the enchanting and headstrong young muse.

RENOIR locates a fascinating moment of change, one century's way of thinking giving way to the next, and the passing of the torch from a great painter to the great filmmaker of such classics as Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game.

Director's Statement

In 1915, the 21-year-old Jean Renoir is seriously injured on the battle-field, and narrowly escapes losing a leg. He goes to convalesce at Collettes, the home of his father, celebrated impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, in Cagnes-sur-Mer on the French Riviera. While the war has set the world ablaze and drenched it in blood, the Eden-like property of the old painter exalts life. It is here that Jean meets the incandescent Andree, who will become his father's last model and his own young wife, as well as the star of his early films under the name Catherine Hessling.

A life source for both the dying father and the "as yet unborn" son, Andree Heuschling will prove the conduit of labyrinthine desires, both amorous and artistic. Her destiny, unique in the history of art, is that of artist's model and actress at the crossroads of painting and cinema, and the object of an artistic Oedipal complex for a father and son.

Crushed by the towering paternal figure, Jean is a young man without vocation, a falsely hearty loner who has found consolation in the fraternity of the trenches.

If the ultimate work is one of truth, Auguste Renoir's final period refuses any meditation of finitude. The war has injured two of his sons: a source of constant anguish. But neither the death of his wife, nor the paralyzing sickness that is gradually overtaking him can take hold of his final paintings. Noble and heroic to the bitter end, determined to capture all the grace of desire, all the joy of the living, Renoir recreated, in his garden, the earthly pictorial paradise of his masters: Giorgione, Titian and the French school of the 18th century. All his life he would paint women, flowers and children above all.

It was by imagining his strange studio of wood and glass, nestled in the heart of this Mediterranean Eden - a studio that looked more like D.W. Griffith's primitive film studio than a painter's - that the film came to me, even as it was here that cinema first appeared to Jean.

Determined to become an actress, Andree instils in the young man her love of cinema. He lets her decide for him, faithful to his father's theory that one must let life carry one where it will, like a cork borne along by a stream. Later he will confide: "I only took my first steps in cinema in the hope of making my wife a star," nonetheless adding, since their artistic couple later shattered, that: "cinema was for us a voracious divinity."

With this film, I am returning to my own source - born in Nice, to the Mediterranean. It is less a place than it is a matter. A land of ochre and deep green, of the heady Mistral wind and Klein Blue. It is from my native landscapes that my cinematographic dreaming has drawn its substance. While poaching on Renoir's territory, I immersed myself in thoughts of water. Like the son, the father always followed the course and the women of water.

-- Gilles Bourdos

Q & A with Gilles Bourdo

What made you decide to focus on the last years of Auguste Renoir's life?

It was the precise moment that Andree Heuschling entered the lives of the Renoirs. A source of life for the dying father as well as for the son who has not yet been "born" to himself, Dedee was the medium for a strange flow of desire, both amorous and artistic. It was she, later to become Catherine Hessling, who made me want to do this film. I was all the more fascinated by her character since little has been written about her, and yet her destiny, first as a model then as an actress at the crossroads of painting and cinema, is unique in the history of art. It's really through her that I was able to define the fictional scope of the film.

The contrast between Auguste's burdensome old age and the vitality of his painting is striking.

When you compare his life and his work around 1915, the paradox is indeed remarkable. Though he suffered terribly from polyarthritis, though his wife had died and his two eldest sons had been wounded at the front, his painting overflowed with sensuality, desire and joy. I got the strong feeling that his painting served as the counterpoint to his suffering. Reconstructing a picturesque Eden on his property in Collettes was his response to the suffering in the world all around him; a world at war where Thenatos and the spectre of decay were ever present. It is this dialectic between the presence of physical suffering and the need for beauty that interested me in Auguste Renoir. At this particular juncture in his life, his painting broke away from everyday life. All that remained on the canvas were feminine bodies floating in timeless nature. One gets the feeling he was looking to walk straight into the Arcadia of his masters, into Eden, during his lifetime. Everything about his life should have led him to paint subjects akin to The Scream by Munch. Yet on the contrary, while his own flesh caused him only pain, his painting celebrated the sensuality of a young girl's skin.

He also insists on the value of working with one's hands.

Auguste's family came from Limoges, known for its porcelain. He painted plates until he was 15, when machines replaced human workers. He always regarded his status as an artist with humility, considering himself first and foremost a "worker of paint." What I like about Auguste Renoir is his refusal of melodrama. He breaks with the usual image of the artist in film: the myth of the tortured artist, like Van Gogh, Basquiat or Munch.

Renoir had a theory which he shares with his son Jean in the film: "Let yourself be carried through life like a cork on water." How did the Renoirs, father and son, apply this?

The cork theory is key to understanding how the Renoirs' positioned themselves with regard to their respective arts. They both had a sense of fluidity. Jean was a filmmaker of water, not rock or architecture. His genius lay in his capacity to catch life as it flowed by and to adapt to or confront any situation that might arise while he is directing. He endowed his films with this fluid quality, even if in his own life, this attitude sometimes had unexpected consequences. But the omnipresence of fluid is recurrent with both Renoirs, in the act of creation, and in their way of life. And it passed from father to son.

From the very first images, Andree comes off as an incredibly modern young woman.

She brings a breezy vivacity to their lives. She is the modern world itself pushing open the gate to their home. She enters a place in deep slumber and awakens a stiff old painter, arousing his dormant desire. It was important from the get-go to establish her insolence and free will. I also wanted to film the confrontation between the fresh appeal of Andree's youth and the bodies of mutilated men, devoured from the inside, or in transformation like the adolescent Coco's. Three men at three stages of life, subject to their desire. A quest for sensuality threatened at any moment by disease and war.

Andree is also the only one who holds her own against the painter...

I wanted to explore relations pertaining to class. Nothing in Renoir's everyday life indicates he has any inkling that such issues exist. The presence of family servants in the home of Jean and Auguste appears to go without saying. I wanted to bring class relations back into the film: that's why Andree insists on being paid for her time! That's why she breaks plates in a rage--she's taking it out on the family heritage--and it's the same energy that she'll put into her later role in NANA.

It's Andree who appears to inspire Jean's vocation.

Jean Renoir is an extremely complex, kaleidoscopic, almost ungraspable character. In 1915, at the age of 21, Jean is a young man without ambition, fascinated by the fraternity of the soldiers at the front. I chose to emphasise one particular aspect of his character: indecision. That's what intrigued me about this young man and it's a character trait that would count throughout his life. His father died with the conviction that his son was a good-for-nothing, which breaks with the common idea of vocation and precocious talent.

In his defence, Jean may have been intimidated not only by his father, but also by his brother Pierre, who was determined to become an actor from a very young age. It took an outside element to sway the undecided Jean. That is Andree's role. Jean allows her to make up his mind for him, adhering to his father's philosophy of letting life take you where it will like a cork on water. Later, he'll fess up to it in his memoirs when he writes "I only put a foot in cinema in the hope of making my wife a star."

What about the contrast between the shimmering light of the outdoors and the dark, sombre interiors?

Nature is the sphere of painting and sensuality. Renoir only paints by daylight. As soon as the light begins to fade, his pain takes precedence over.

Water is a key element in the film. It seems to seep into the narrative, the light and the landscapes.

Poking around Renoir's land, I myself was infiltrated by the thought of water. Both father and son traced the curves of women like the curves of a stream. I wanted a film that would flow in that roundabout way, in which scenes flow into each other without abrupt narrative edges and overly structured transitions.

In limiting the action to within the boundaries of their property, Collettes, you created a feeling of confinement, despite the beauty of the landscapes. Why?

I wanted to create the atmosphere of being behind closed doors, but to shoot outside. As the various versions of the screenplay evolved, I gradually pared it down until I cut out everything that happened outside the property. It also enabled me, thanks to the simplicity of the natural scenery and Andree's modernity, to forget about doing a costume piece. Certainly, history is marching on right outside the gate and some of the set and props recall the period of time, but I wasn't into doing a historical reconstruction. That's how war ends up slipping into Renoir's Eden in threatening little touches, rather than full on representation.

What made you think of casting Michel Bouquet?

He was the obvious choice. What I liked about him, aside from the fact he's an extraordinary actor, was the relationship between the "old master" and the younger actors. It provided crossover between reality and fiction. I discovered that Michel had the same touching, obstinate approach to work as Renoir, and the same courage in the face of adversity.

How did Vincent Rottiers end up in the role of Jean?

I'd perceived a vibrant presence in earlier roles of his. Despite the fact he's usually cast as a kid off the streets, I thought he'd make a credible WWI officer. But my choice was much more intuitive than rational. I told him to work on the character's indecision. There was the risk he'd draw inspiration from Jean Renoir's roles in his own films, that is to say that of a young man from a well-off family who liked to portray the working class in almost caricatural fashion. I told him to really try to make the role his own and to not be intimidated by the genius of Jean Renoir.

What about Christa Theret as Dede?

Christa melted right into the character: she has the same vitality, the same insolence that Andree Heuschling had. Christa doesn't cheat: she has Catherine Hessling's energy, and a timeless physique. I wanted her to have curves and I had a tough time convincing her to gain some weight, an unusual request from a director!

Were you concerned at all about how to represent the act of painting on the screen?

Representing painting on film was indeed an issue for me. I had two opposing examples in mind: Pialat, who absolutely refused to portray a painter in the act; and Minnelli who straightforwardly directs the actual situations portrayed in paintings. I tried another approach, consisting of not forbidding myself to film the act of painting, without wanting to actually depict Renoir's work. So there is no reconstruction of "living paintings" in the film. This also explains the ongoing discrepancy between the paintings that Auguste paints before the camera and his model, as if to underscore the artist's part in reinterpreting what he sees.

And that's why you called on Guy Ribes, the brilliant forger?

Once I decided to make the actual practice of painting a part of the story and not to rely on digital effects, I had to find a painter. The difficulty was that Renoir painted by successive layers that were extremely fluid and diluted with turpentine, so that one brushstroke too many would betray Renoir's touch. I was looking for a virtuoso that could mesh with the body of Renoir--become his hand. That's when I met Guy Ribes, who was just getting out of prison. The interesting thing is that he is a forger, not a copier. He paints non-existing works by the great painters, drawing inspiration from their style, but he doesn't reproduce originals. On examining his legal files, which covered all the forgeries he had done, I realized what it really involved was interpretation.

So it's his hand, his brush strokes that you filmed?

Yes, and thanks to him, all of the scenes involving painting were done on the set, in real time. That's why all of the shots are contextualised so that on the screen we see the relation between the painting and the immediate environment of the painter. His gestures had to coincide with the actions of the actors. First I captured the voice and spirit of Michel Bouquet, then the hand of Guy Ribes, "directing" them both. Sometimes the painter's stroke was right on, but sometimes it wasn't, just like an actor.