Cannes Premiere title paints a beautiful portrait of French artist Pierre Bonnard and his muse

'Bonnard, Pierre & Marthe'

Source: Carole Bethuel

‘Bonnard, Pierre & Marthe’

Dir/scr: Martin Provost. France. 2023. 122 mins.

In a modest Paris studio in 1893, Pierre Bonnard (Vincent Macaigne) is sketching the woman seated behind him. He draws and paints on paper or canvas tacked directly to the wall, no easel required. His model, whose name neither he nor we discover until after they’ve spontaneously given in to a mighty carnal attraction, is Marthe (Cecile de France). He studied law but, along with his friends – whose names are all known to us still – he intends to “revolutionize modern painting”. Widely pre-sold, there should be at least a small audience in every country with an art museum for Bonnard, Pierre And Marthe, a touching, visually fetching and educational look at the intertwining of art and stubborn romance. 

 There may be a few too many scenes of people leaping naked into the Seine to frolic or refresh themselves

Writer-director Martin Provost, whose 2008 account of quirky outsider artist Seraphine won Best Film and six other top awards at the Césars, and who has shown a career-long knack for portraying the inner lives of women, sidesteps most of the potential pitfalls that would render this fact-based material stiff or didactic. We know that Bonnard will sell his daring pictures, but he doesn’t — yet.

Marthe and Pierre have great sex from the outset, filmed with matter-of-fact ravenous pizzaz, but she suffers an asthma attack at her climax. A doctor will later inform Pierre that Martha is not long for this world and that Pierre should reconcile himself to her early death. Sorry doc — these two have a half-century-long roller coaster to ride. Of the 2,000 or so pictures Bonnard painted, a third, we’re told, depict Marthe. Pierre may have found Marthe on the street, but it is their complicated mutual devotion that makes his path to renown possible.

Macaigne, who has played a lot of hangdog characters but who has blossomed recently in major roles in Diary Of A Fleeting Affair and The Night Doctor, seems like a very strange choice on paper but immediately dissipates any doubts on screen. De France is terrific and they form a completely convincing couple replete with playful complicity, misunderstandings, hurt and triumph. Marthe wants to be a mother, and Bonnard doesn’t want to be a bad father. He is besotted and inspired by her, until the mere passage of time makes him restless. Pierre gradually takes up with much younger Beaux-Arts student Renee (Stacy Martin), creating a rift nobody knows how to handle with anything approaching grace.

As performances go, Martin has a hard time holding her own against Macaigne and De France, which reflects her character’s predicament just a shade too well. Anouk Grinberg is a flighty delight as Misia Sert, the salon-hosting free spirit who may have gone through men like paper plates but treated artists like fine China, including helping to support Bonnard financially until his reputation was established. Marthe, who turns out to be a startlingly original painter in her own right, wonders aloud, “Why do women always pose naked, but not men?” Aging hair and make-up effects are reasonably good. 

The cinematic building blocks are beautifully stacked. And when Claude Monet (André Marcon) and his wife come over from Giverny for a picknic (there’s a funny false-humble line about how “the government has noticed my water lilies and wants to display them in a basement”) there is as much discussion of every edible item in the picnic basket as there is of anything art-related. There may be a few too many scenes of people leaping naked into the Seine to frolic or refresh themselves. But this tale of strong brush strokes and strong emotions — and how places evoke feelings and memories — effortlessly recalls a time when “wellness” classes weren’t needed to connect with nature because nature mattered as much as man-made beauty.

Production company: Les Films du Kiosque

International sales: Memento International,

Producers: François Kraus, DenisPineau-Valencienne 

Screenplay: Provost

Cinematography: Guillaume Schiffman 

Production design: Jérémie Duchier 

Editing: Tina Baz

Music: Michael Galasso

Main cast: Cécile De France, Vincent Macaigne, Stacy Martin, Anouk Grinberg, André Marcon