The luminescence of actress Christa Theret, as the muse of the Renoirs père et fils in Gilles Bourdos' high-flown domestic drama, matches up nicely with the miracles in oil being created by the aging, ailing Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet).
The year is 1915, the First World War is raging, and as the elder Renoir and his near-juvenile and definitely delinquent model, Andree (Theret), achieve an intersection of art and flesh -- and Andrée and the younger Renoir, Jean (Vincent Rottiers), approach the intersection of flesh and flesh -- so does the movie suggest an intersection of art and art: One Renoir is a giant of Impressionism; the other will become, perhaps, the world's greatest filmmaker. The bridge between media is a woman of questionable character. The war is reshaping the world. There's a lot going on, on a French Riviera not yet despoiled by paparazzi.
The drama isn't quite as stirring as the philosophy, but the sumptuous look of the film -- achieved by gifted, Tawainese-born cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee ("In the Mood for Love"), and the virtual Renoirs created for Bourdos by erstwhile art forger Guy Ribes -- atones for a lot. It's less a movie about events, after all, than transition, and anticipation: The elder Renoir is painting his last pictures; Jean Renoir, returning wounded from the war, will help create this thing called cinema. Both, however, have to get by Andrée, who has become the father's last model and will be the son's first wife.
If the portrayal of the captivating and troubling Andrée seems harsh, it's not, at least if one trusts the biographical record. But while Bourdos' film is a loving portrayal of the elder Renoir, and a tribute to the budding genius of the son, the subtext is that things are never as they seem -- unless, perhaps, when they've been committed to canvas. Or, in some cases, film.
PLOT In 1915, a red-haired libertine becomes the final muse of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and the fascination of his son, Jean.
RATING R (glorious nudity, language)
CAST Michel Bouquet, Christa Theret, Vincent Rottiers
BOTTOM LINE Sumptuous, savvy study of art making, love and light. Much of the passion, however, is in the pictures.