Perhaps it's damning Renoir with faint praise to call it agreeable, but Gilles Bourdos' film—about the waning days and household entanglements of impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir—shows an admirable restraint, quiet simplicity, and lush pictorial beauty.
So if the dialogue can be a bit clunky and the psychoanalysis a bit thin, what's there is enough, evoking the living rhythms of the Renoir's home in Cagnes-sur-Mer (on the French Riviera). It helps that Bourdos and leading cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing shot on location at the Renoir family estate, finding the filmic equivalent of the rich color and play of sunlight found in the artist's work. (That work is cleverly live-to-film recreated here by painting double—and convicted art forger—Guy Ribes.)
Screenwriters Jérome Tonnerre, Michel Spinosa and Bourdos walk us through the summer of 1915, when 74-year-old Renoir (Michel Bouquet) receives his latest muse: "A girl out of nowhere, sent by a dead woman." She is Andrée Heuschling (Christa Theret), a teenage aspiring actress referred by the painter's recently departed wife. Andree quickly establishes herself as a free spirit who punctures pretension and wants to seize "everything life has to offer," starting with men.
Added to her beauty (and nude posing), these traits make her the archetypal French fantasy girl. The film touches on the relentlessness of "the male gaze" (of not one but three Renoir men) and more than once draws the Freudian connection of paintbrush to penis. Andrée draws the focus not only of "the boss" but his sons Jean (one day to become the great filmmaker of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game) and the pubescent Claude, nicknamed "Coco" (Thomas Doret, the young talent from The Kid with a Bike). The latter serves as a relatively innocent observer to the sex-and-death crudity of Darwinism, from bloody animal remains in the kitchen to the debilitating war wound older brother Jean (Vincent Rottiers) brings home on sick leave and to the competition for Andrée's attention.
All the Renoir men betray their neuroses about their own and the others' uncertain futures, particularly Jean's should he return to war duty and Auguste's should his shaky hand refuse to cooperate. Despite all the opportunity for (figurative) hand-wringing, Renoir tends to the understated and accentuates the positive. "A painting should be something pleasant and cheerful," says Auguste. "There are enough disagreeable things in life. I don't need to create more." With the inherent interest of its subjects and its every frame a painting, Renoir is, indeed, agreeable enough.