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‘Rodin’ Cannes Review: It’s Got Art and Sex, But Where’s the Passion?

Jacques Doillon’s old-fashioned biopic of the French artist is honorable and handsome, but it has none of the freshness of the best Cannes titles

Some films come to Cannes as no-brainers, clearly deserving of their berth sight unseen. (Good or bad, this year’s work from Michael Haneke, Andrey Zvyagintsev, Todd Haynes and Ruben Ostlund probably fit in that category.) And some films come to Cannes and face a skeptical audience that wants to see proof that they belong on the Croisette.

It’s safe to say that Jacques Doillon’s “Rodin” arrived at Cannes on Tuesday in the latter category. And at best, the honorable, old-fashioned biopic might skate by for being a throwback at a 70th anniversary festival that’s making a point of nostalgia — but if you’re looking for a hint of the freshness and verve that mark the best Cannes films, you won’t find it in this rather dull look at the art and love life (not necessarily in that order) of the French sculptor.

Doillon, 73, has been making films since the 1970s and is best known for helping launch the careers of actresses Sandrine Bonnaire, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Juliette Binoche when they were in their late teens or early 20s. “Rodin” is only his fifth film since the turn of the century, and his first since “Le Marriage a trois” seven years ago.

So he’s not one of the hot names in competition; he’s a veteran at a festival that is celebrating a major anniversary by saluting those who were here along the way. The first press screening of “Rodin” came opposite a star-studded anniversary gala in the Grand Theatre Lumiere, while another Cannes vet, Andre Techine, got a celebration of his own on Monday night.

Techine’s tribute was followed, sadly, by a screening of his new film, “Golden Years,” which is something of a stinker. So on Tuesday, it was up to Doillon to prove that he’s at the festival because his film deserves to be here, not because he’s been here before and Cannes is in a nostalgic mood.

But “Rodin,” which is screening in the prestigious main competition, didn’t really do that. It drops in on the artist (played by Vincent Lindon) when he’s 40 and has just received his first state commission, and follows him for about 20 years. The film goes through the creation of many of his best-known works — if it gets a section on Rodin’s Wikipedia page, it gets a mention here — and through his relationships with a number of women, notably his longtime companion and eventual wife, Rose Beuret (Severine Caneele), and his model/student/muse/soulmate Camille Claudel (Izia Higelin).

Claudel already has a 1988 movie named after her, in which she was played by Isabelle Adjani and Rodin was played by Gerard Depardieu. The stormy relationship between the two is as much at the heart of “Rodin” as the art itself — for a long stretch, Doillon seems to alternate between a scene of Rodin working and a scene of him and Camille either making love or arguing.

Artists, we learn, can be difficult, and great artists are often misunderstood by all the Philistines and bankers and politicians. And, oh yeah, a womanizer often surrounded by willing young women posing naked is probably not the guy with whom you want to be in a relationship.

But as much as the familiar territory makes “Rodin” hard to embrace, so does the way Doillon tells the story. The film is handsome and polished, but it’s strangely inert for a movie dealing with both artistic and carnal passion. The uncompromising approach of director Mike Leigh made the last artist biopic to play Cannes, 2014’s “Mr. Turner,” fresh and bold; this one, with an episodic structure that makes it seem longer than its two hours, just feels like a throwback.

It perhaps has some value in an anniversary year, but it’s nowhere near as vital as other films in the festival, including some by directors older than Doillon: Agnes Varda with “Visages, Villages,” Michael Haneke with “Happy End,” the late Abbas Kiarostami with “24 Frames.”

The audience at the film’s second press screening in the Salle Bazin sat through it all patiently, though with more than a handful of walkouts. And then when the clock hit midnight and the movie ended, they responded with… nothing at all.

Not a single bit of applause. Not a single boo. Just indifferent silence.