A historical drama traces the lifelong friendship between two renowned 19th-century French artists – painter Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne) and writer Emile Zola (Guillaume Canet) – from their first meeting as schoolmates to their creative rivalry as fame and success continue to elude Cézanne.
“The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.” – Émile Zola.
Most artistic rivalries are spawned from admiration, either one-sided, as was the case with Antonio Salieri, who envied Mozart’s effortless skills, or mutual, like that of Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne and writer Émile Zola. Director Danièle Thompson delves into the nuances of their relationship in the well-written and shot but plodding period drama “Cézanne et Moi.” Theatrically staged, with long repetitive stretches of characters frolicking in 19th Century garb, and the two protagonists loving or hating each other eloquently (there is a strong homoerotic subtext that the film never fully explores), the film has its share of memorable moments, yet certainly poses a challenge to sit through for anyone but the most rabid enthusiasts of the two highly influential artists.
One of its issues is the conventional narrative structure. We begin in the “present” – or 1888 – as Zola (Guillaume Canet) reunites with Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne), for another one of their countless confrontations about the merits of art. This time, it’s personal, a broken-down Cézanne passionately accusing Zola of plagiarizing the painter’s turbulent life, at times transcribing their most private moments in his books. With frequent flashbacks, the film reveals the duo’s lengthy friendship, starting in or around 1860, when Zola was piss-poor, feeding his mother plucked city birds (yeah, you heard me), while the rebellious Cézanne flees his privileged family and elopes to Paris to hang out with (and secretly lust after) the talented writer.
A rascal and a provocateur, Cézanne throws tantrums, breaks into fights at highbrow parties, his ostentatious, judgmental nature forming a striking contrast to the timid, reclusive Zola. Having an art dealer would “paralyze” Cézanne. Of course, bashing the world of which you are a part eventually leads to exile, and the artist ends up banished to the glory of France’s nature, spending his miserable days painting stunning vistas and his wife’s, Hortense’s (Déborah François), naked flesh, refusing to adhere to the “standards” imposed on him by the art world. In the meantime, inversely-proportionally, Zola’s stratospheric rise to fame leads to him marrying one of Cézanne’s ex-sweethearts, Alexandrine (Alice Pol) and setting down in a mansion outside Paris.
The two meet, over and over, mingling with other notorious figures, their rivals, such as Édouard Manet (Nicolas Gob) and Guy de Maupassant (Félicien Juttner). They debate over art’s merits and its reflection of the truth. Cézanne despises the bourgeoisie and becomes more and more of a hermit, while Zola doesn’t exactly embrace it either, but kind of goes along with it, leading to a poignant final confrontation that displays both men at their most vulnerable and poses the question: which one of them has been more true to himself?
The women luckily also get their moments to shine, apart from being mere subjects for the Artistes’ inspirations. Déborah François delivers an astonishing monolog halfway through the film that serves as one of its highlights. Sick of her husband’s infatuation with the projected images on a canvas, she dares him to fuck his painting, an applause-worthy zinger. Another such moment comes several scenes later, with Alice Pol verbally massacring Cézanne, as a train approaches in the background, intensifying her speech. The dinner sequence – “Cézanne et Moi”’s centerpiece, later referenced in Zola’s works – is another standout.
Unfortunately, those inspired moments are rare. One can’t fault the dialogue, which is uniformly elegant, but the film comes dangerously close to the tedium of watching (Cézanne’s) paint dry. Perhaps it’s because we don’t get to see enough of the great painter’s pieces. Or maybe Thompson could’ve infused her film with a few more artistic flourishes – it’s not like there aren’t enough skinny-dipping shots she could’ve easily replaced with a grandiose, inspired sequence. But no – the film adheres to a classical style, all tiny umbrellas and corsets and friendly kisses (just do it already, dudes!). As for Jean-Marie Drejou’s beautiful cinematography – it certainly reflects Cézanne’s work but lacks his warmth and grandeur.
“Your writing is so modern,” Cézanne tells Zola at one point until his gaze falls on the writer’s furniture. “Don’t all those old things weigh down on you?” This is just an example of Thompson’s dialogue, which I now have to point out, for it so powerfully buoys the otherwise-somewhat-boring flick. One can quote pretty much any part of this film, it’s so erudite and expressive. Zola, the writer that he was, in particular, gets moments to shine: “Discouragement can also make the pen fall from my hand… We know each other too well to ever fall apart… Two friends who understand each other at a glance.” He utters my favorite line to his friend/nemesis: “With you, I never know whether I’m dealing with a dog, a cobra, or a butterfly.” Both of the actors fare well, playing multiple ages and chewing on scenery, especially Guillaume Gallienne, in the more showy role. Shy and intimidated by women, Guillaume Canet surprisingly fares better as Zola, in the more subtle role. Two Guillaumes playing mirror opposites – coincidence… or design?
When it comes to great Artiste’s biopics, I’d recommend starting with Andrei Tarkovsky’s dark and somber “Andrei Rublev,” or Milos Forman’s genial “Amadeus” – or for those of you who think the world did not exist before the 2000’s, Ed Harris’ complex “Pollock,” Julie Taymor’s dreamlike “Frida,” Mike Leigh’s epic “Mr. Turner,” or Pablo Larraín’s recent masterpiece, “Neruda” (read review here). But one could also do much worse than hanging out with Thompson and Cézanne, which reveals some truths about rivalry, leaving behind a legacy, love, and friendship… Though, let’s face it, “Cézanne en Moi” would’ve been WAY more interesting.
Available on Digital HD August 8th from Magnolia Home Entertainment