There is an old adage that behind every great man is an even greater woman. Behind Pierre-Auguste and Jean Renoir were six women, so it should be no surprise the amount of success they both achieved. Renoir focuses on the famous impressionist painter at the end of his career and the son at the beginning of his. Bridging this gap is one woman, the often forgotten Andrée Heuschling, who was Pierre-Auguste’s last model and Jean’s first wife. Renoir takes a close look at Andrée and the role she played in the lives of these two men. For Pierre-Auguste, she was a model, a subject with round firm breasts and skin like velvet. For Jean, Andrée was the force that drove him into the movies and a career as a legendary filmmaker. For both, she filled a void left by another’s death.
Aline Charigot Renoir, wife to Pierre-Auguste (Michel Bouquet) and mother to Jean (Vincent Rottiers) died in 1915. The movie begins two years later, with a young girl biking up to the gates of a French Riviera estate. She is Andrée (Christa Theret) and tells the young boy at the gate, Coco Renoir (Thomas Doret), that Mrs. Renoir has sent her to model for Pierre-Auguste. Coco leads Andrée to the house and before leaving her there, tells her that Mrs. Renoir is dead. Andrée never reveals how or why she came to the Renoir estate. She may have been sent by someone else and told to lie, or Mrs. Renoir personally selected her from beyond the grave. That is possible, we get a brief dream sequence where she comes to Pierre-Auguste and asks for his approval, but also consider the importance Andrée will factor into young Jean’s life. Naturally, Mrs. Renoir would choose a woman who could kill two birds with one stone.
Theret, the actress playing Andrée, has natural beauty to her, but most striking is her sensuality without sexuality. She spends a good portion of this movie in varying states of nudity, but all are tastefully dealt with. They are not charged with eroticism, but reflect the beauty of the human body. Andrée is free-spirited with reformed values, but they are left off the screen. Coco feels that Jean might be thinking about Andrée too much and tells him that Andrée has various men waiting for her at the gates when she goes home. Yet, we never see this side of her. Andrée teases Jean in a scene that she is exhausted from making love all night long, yet when the two of them do come together, their relationship is one of the mind, and not of the flesh. Instead of intercourse, we get a very quick scene where Andrée masturbates Jean. The camera stays close on their faces, making it about their connection, not the physical act.
This is not to suggest that the movie is void of any sexuality. Scenes of painting are far more ecstatic than a scene of lovemaking. One shot in particular, a close-up of a paintbrush being dipped into a jar of water, has more sexual energy and suggestion than an entire movie loaded with nudity. Shot in slow motion, the tip of brush plunges softly into the water, only to have its red paint dilute and disperse into the water. The brush is brought back out and dipped in once more. The shot lingers, not obscenely, but suggestively. This is a clever substitute for the act of physical penetration and a far more elegant way of depicting it as well. Naked girls traipse among the flowers, yet it is Renoir’s brush, lightly flicking across the canvas, dabbing paint here and there, that gives the movie its erotic charge.
Michel Bouquet, 88-years-old, plays the 70-year-old Pierre-Auguste exquisitely. Pierre-Auguste suffered greatly to paint his pictures, and the movie spends a good deal of time depicting the struggle. I recently watched a very engaging documentary about pop-artist Wayne White, Beauty is Embarrassing (Berkeley 2012) and in the doc, White’s wife sums up her husband’s passion not as a desire, but as a need. We hear this ad nauseam when artist speak of their drive, it’s not something they necessarily want to do, it is something they have to do. Non-artist types are skeptical of this excuse, if you don’t like doing something, then stop doing it. If it hurts to do it, do something else. Yet, we have Pierre-Auguste Renoir, crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, still painting to his very last breath. He remains still, inert, conserving all his strength to paint. His maids push him around in a wheelchair, carrying him up stairs or across streams when necessary. His Doctor (Carlo Brandt) worries about his lack of activity and asks him to walk. Pierre-Auguste stands and shows that he is capable of walking, but this small act saps him of all his strength, and now he has nothing left to paint with. He must paint. In his youth, he painted plates and cups. Then they invented machines to do that, and Pierre-Auguste started painting pictures. Paint, paint, paint, that is all Pierre-Auguste was put here to do. It has been rumored that once Pierre-Auguste could no longer use his hands, he tied a paintbrush to his prick and carried on. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, but I wouldn’t put it past him.
All this painting is unhealthy and Andrée starts to put the pieces together. Pierre-Auguste’s wife was one of his models, some of the maids used to be models, some of them are waiting to be models. All are in service to the great Pierre-Auguste Renoir. That might be what drives her affection to Jean, a chance for individuality. Andrée pushes Jean toward the cinema and once the war is over, that is the direction his life will take. Jean complies and in a post-script we learn that Andrée changed her name to Catherine Hessling, the two were married and made five movies together. In 1931, they divorced and Jean went on to be one of the most lauded directors the cinema has ever known. Andrée died penniless and in obscurity. The woman behind the man has been forgotten.