Cannes Spotlights Family Drama About the 16-Year-Old Girl Who Became Muse to Pierre-Auguste Renoir — and His Son Jean

Cannes Spotlights Family Drama About the 16-Year-Old Girl Who Became Muse to Pierre-Auguste Renoir — and His Son Jean
Vincent Rottiers and Michel Bouquet in "Renoir"
(Courtesy Wild Bunch / © Jean-Marie Leroy)

It wasn’t likely that the Cannes film festival organizers would be able to resist scheduling a film about the Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Jean Renoir, the second of his three sons and the greatest French director of them all.

Gilles Bourdos’s “Renoir,” which will close this year’s Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, shows the impact made on Auguste (Michel Bouquet) and Jean (Vincent Rottiers) by 16-year-old Andrée Heuschling (Christa Theret) – potentially as the prize of an Oedipal struggle. Read the synopsis and see more stills here.

Born in Moronvilliers, in Marne, Andrée had come to Nice to avoid the War. There she came to the notice of Henri Matisse, who recommended her to Auguste. She became his muse and, perhaps, the arthritically crippled widower’s comforter in his last two years. Among the paintings she sat for were "Blonde Woman With a Rose" and his late masterpiece “The Bathers” (1918-19).

A few months after Auguste died, aged 78, in December 1919, Jean and Andrée were married; their only child, Alain, was born in 1921. Under the screen name Catherine Hessling, she became Jean’s muse, too, as he sought to make her a movie star. She was first filmed in “Catherine” by Albert Dieudonné (the future star of Abel Gance’s “Napoléon”).

Her stark black and white makeup in the movie gave her an early Expressionistic look (bordering on proto-punk). Whereas she was a Rubensesque redhead in Auguste’s paintings, she is a sexy demimonde minx in the early films made by his son, notably “Nana,” adapted from Zola, and the bold avant-garde experiment “Sur un air de Charleston” (both 1926). (See the video below.)  

She also appeared in Renoir’s “Le Fille de l’eau” (1925), “The Little Match Girl” (1928), and “Tire-au-flanc” (1928), and became a favorite of the sometime-surrealist filmmaker Alberto Cavalacanti. She was a limited actress whose emotive style was ill-suited to talkies. It’s believed her marriage to Renoir broke down when, instead of Hessling, he cast Janie Marèse as the femme fatale in his second talkie, 1931’s “La Chienne” (Marèse was tragically killed in a car accident shortly after filming). The Renoirs separated that year; not until 1943 would Hessling grant her husband a divorce.

She retired from acting after appearing in G.W. Pabst’s “High and Low,” her sixth Cavalcanti film, and a French “Crime and Punishment,” released in 1935 and her last movie. After dancing professionally for a few years, she retired from showbusiness. She and Renoir both died in 1979.

Whereas Hessling never became a star, the irony is that Christa Theret, who looks magnificently bohemian playing the radiant Andrée in the Impressionist light of the Renoir production stills, could well become one.

Below: Catherine Hessling and American vaudeville performer Johnny Hudgins in "Sur un air de Charleston" ("Charleston Parade").