Sit There and Look Pretty, by David Bax
When you look at the paintings of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, you will see recognizable portraits of humanity. The postures, the atmosphere, the expressions; these things all contain a deep resemblance to life as we know it. Simultaneously, there is much about those same paintings that is not, in the most literal sense, realistic. Those gauzy impressionistic strokes don’t look like anything we know but they feel more impactful and specific than would a slavish recreation of the world. That’s because Renoir the painter possessed something Renoir the film unfortunately lacks: a point of view.
Gilles Bourdos’ film takes place in the last year or so of the artist’s life. His wife has died and he lives in his beautiful home with a gaggle of maids who dote on him and his youngest son, whom he largely ignores. He takes on a young woman named Andrée as a model and, shortly thereafter, one of his older sons, Jean, returns from the war. The bizarre love triangle that ensues is the movie’s focus.
If the idea of a love triangle sounds like a cliché to you then you’ve basically guessed correctly. The sturm und drang of the mismatched Jean and Andrée – he moneyed and she destitute – plays out largely in the teeth-gnashingly melodramatic ways one would expect. Yet that same societal imbalance provides the film with what little it has in the way of an interesting theme. Andrée is full of ambitions that her lack of means makes it nearly impossible to realize. Meanwhile, the unmotivated Jean has the opportunities to make something of himself despite his absence of drive. The gut-punch provided by the prologue text that appears on screen bears out this tragic discrepancy. Woefully, Bourdos gives this rich and weighty streak far less attention than it deserves.
Renoir is a lushly photographed work and – not being schooled in the career of Pierre-Auguste – I was compelled to look at images of his paintings after viewing the film. To very little of my surprise, many of the images composed by cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee are direct quotations of the man’s most famous output. Obviously, this includes the images we actually see him paint but there are others (a rowboat paddling along a moonlit river; a large gathering for an outdoor meal) that lift their appearance directly from his real inventions.
Still, I found myself unsatisfied as to the motivation behind these recreations. They are pretty, to be sure, but they offer no detectable insight into Pierre-Auguste or any of the other characters. Unlike the work of the men who bear the surname – one a painter at the end of his life, the other a great filmmaker in the making – Renoir the film appears to have almost no imperative for existing.