While for the most part Renoir (dir. Gilles Bourdos) comes across as quite your standard biopic on the surface – I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone for getting bored by its languid pace and muted confrontational points – there are two aspects of the film that kept my interest. Firstly, that the look of the film does not necessarily reflect a filmic language, but more of a painterly one, something that is particularly hard to translate to film, but one where I think the film succeeds admirably. Secondly, and far more intriguingly, the underlying theme beneath the unhurried exterior seems to be in going to lengths to portray the work that women have historically done in assisting the creation of art, work that is traditionally devalued, hidden and forgotten.
The film centres on the twilight years of Renoir the senior, as Pierre-Auguste (Michel Bouquet), stricken with arthritis that twists his limbs and fingers to the point where if he wants to paint the brush must be tied to his hand, has been left in a house surrounded by women, as his adult sons, including Jean the not-yet director (Vincent Rottiers), are fighting in the Great War. The appearance of Andrée (Christa Theret), a young woman spotted by one of the women who assists Pierre-Auguste, who insists that Andrée is a ‘perfect Renoir’, brings about a burst of great creativity for the artist in what will be the final stage of his career and life.
What follows is a lot of well-lit nudity as Andrée poses for Pierre-Auguste across the Renoir estate, and of course the inevitable generational conflict when Jean returns from the front, promptly falls in love with Andrée, and then flaps about arguing with his father about how terrible it is that his father has spent his life treating women like whores, while Pierre-Auguste narrows eyes at his son and sighs, dear lord, have you not been paying attention, you stupid boy?
Because while Jean is stuck assessing women only in terms of the old virgin/whore dichotomy, the women of the household are constantly depicted just getting shit done in order for art to be created. They cook, they clean, they give Pierre-Auguste physical therapy in the form of massages, reapply his bandages, transport him everywhere whether by pushing his wheelchair or literally carrying him. They, apart from Pierre-Auguste’s youngest son Claude who is still somewhat of a child, are the only means ensuring that Pierre-Auguste has the equipment, strength and support to continue creating.
At one point, a male doctor arrives to consult with Pierre-Auguste, and it is obvious that his medical (and patriarchal) sensibilities are affronted by the fact that there are all these women assisting Pierre-Auguste, rather than the patient battling against his ailments in a far more masculine fashion. He gently berates Pierre-Auguste for his reliance on his wheelchair, and by extension the alternative mobility offered by the women of the house, and insists on Pierre-Auguste standing up and walking a few steps, in order to prove to the patient that it is indeed possible. Possible though it may be, Pierre-Auguste very quickly collapses back into a chair, and declaims that walking takes up all of his energy, and were he to do it there would be nothing left for painting. The doctor is contemptible of such a position, to give up one’s full array of physicality in order to channel it into one limited avenue, clearly strikes him as making Pierre-Auguste less than a full man. That Pierre-Auguste only defines himself through the art he produces, rather than through his body, does not weigh muster.
There is no suggestion by any of the women that Pierre-August would be better off expending his energy on anything but painting. Because really.
All of these instances are so subtle that I questioned while watching the film whether they were actually deliberate on behalf of the filmmakers, or whether I was reading too much into it. Surely it has to be deliberate, as women’s work permeates this film to be nearly present in every frame. All the women, while having their own inner lives, have outwardly given everything in order to facilitate the making of art. These women, working class all, do not live in a time or society where it is open to women of their station to create their own art. Therefore they must either participate in the form of being artistic inspiration, or in fostering the appropriate environment for art to be created. And, apart from the tacit acknowledgement from Pierre-Auguste – that sweet smile in response to the question from the maids “What does it feel like to be carried by women?”, I DIED – it is work that will be unacknowledged by history, and is precarious even in the film’s present. Models can be dismissed for making other women feel their own contributions have been diminished, and they all constantly bristle with tension that they could have their opportunity to contribute to creativity wrested from them.
In the final inter-titles before the credits proper, it is explained that Jean and Andrée went on to get married and make films together (her under a stage name), before their break up in the early nineteen thirties. Most biopics would probably have stopped there. But Renoir makes the point of having its narrative finish on an unflattering note with the words, give or take, that Jean and Andrée both died in 1979, she in poverty and forgotten, he in Hollywood and a cinematic legend. It’s the final piece in the reassembled puzzle that the film has quietly taken it’s run time to put together, pulling together these forgotten contributions from women and placing them back in the frame, yet knowing, perhaps cynically but accurately, that they won’t be noticed by most. The art would not exist without these women, without the existence of their physical forms and the work or thoughts engendered from them. But their names aren’t the one daubed in the corner of the finished piece.