ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Few people get to be an artist's muse. Fewer still get to inspire artists in two art forms. But Bob Mondello says it happened in real life and in the new French film, "Renoir."
BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: 1915, a beautiful young woman bicycling through the woods passes under an effigy of a German soldier and seems entirely unfazed. World War I is raging elsewhere in Europe, but here on the French Riviera life is serene. The cyclist, Andree, is on her way to pose for an elderly Impressionist painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, whom she somewhat startles by claiming to be an artist herself.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RENOIR")
MONDELLO: Actress, dancer, singer, she smiles as he chuckles. Crippled by arthritis, Renoir has hands so swollen he needs help just picking up a brush. Still, he can make canvases glow, and in Andree, he finds inspiration: velvety skin that soaks up light; flaming red hair; firm, rounded flesh. Titian, he says, would have worshipped her.
And as she lounges naked in a field, the camera worships her too. Andree, played by a poutily ravishing Christa Theret, is framed by the filmmakers in nature of such earthy abundance that the master's paintings sometimes overflow into the real world. In one shot, the camera glides from a close-up of Renoir's brush strokes off to one side revealing the bathers he's painting, but not refocusing, and the screen fills with a kind of moving Impressionism.
The filmmaker seemed less concerned about filling the frame with incident, even after the artist's son, Jean Renoir, comes home wounded from the war. Years later, he'll be the brilliant director of such classic films as "Grand Illusion" and "Rules of the Game." Now, he's aimless and, with all that lush natural beauty, more or less has to fall in love with his father's muse who has not just fiery red hair but a fiery temper.
Happily, Jean can fire her imagination with shadowy images from a hand-cranked projector flickering on a sheet. If you know she later starred in his first silent films, you'll have a little something extra to play with during the idle moments in "Renoir." There are plenty, but as the film drifts languorously from one gorgeous composition to the next, every frame a work of art, you'll probably not object too strenuously. I'm Bob Mondello.
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