Editor’s Note: Cézanne et moi opens in limited theatrical release today, April 7, 2017.
It’s 1888, and post-impressionist master Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne) is furious with his old friend Émile Zola (Guillaume Canet) for what he has written in his novel L’œuvre (The Masterpiece). A fictitious account of Zola’s and Cézanne’s friendship, the character that Cézanne is so upset about is in actuality based on several post-impressionists active at the time, but Cézanne’s passion — and, it must be said, his ego — don’t allow him to see it that way. He’s heartbroken, and he has come to see Zola to tell him exactly that, leading to a series of memories and accusations between the two that highlight the mercurial relationship between two geniuses.
Cézanne is always prickly and difficult, and Zola never seems to really like him, despite a third-act speech about his love for his friend: “I can’t remember why I loved you so much.”
Cézanne et moi, Danièle Thompson’s historical biopic, uses flashbacks to give us a fuller picture of this legendary friendship, but these flashbacks fail to explain the affection between the two artists. As children, they’re obviously great pals, but Cézanne is always prickly and difficult, and Zola never seems to really like him, despite a third-act speech about his love for his friend: “I can’t remember why I loved you so much.” It’s heartbreaking and one of the few really great moments in the film, but what he says can’t possibly be true, at least not if what we’ve seen in those flashbacks is at all accurate. Cézanne complains that, when he read L’œuvre, he saw himself in a carnival mirror, but we never get a sense of Zola having seen him in any other way.
Much of this is due to the film’s simplistic, sometimes juvenile, approach to the material. Actors frequently hold a pose that’s reminiscent of drawings in schoolbooks; they will declare something with their finger pointed upward, or ponder something while stroking their chin. In another fine scene, Alexandrine Zola (Alice Pol) gives Cézanne the kind of real talk he has sorely needed for decades, including chiding him for his petty complaints about the Zola household living too close to the train tracks. But the film inexplicably punctuates Mme. Zola’s speech by looping in the sound of a train at that moment, perhaps as irony, perhaps for comedic effect, perhaps because they felt the audience didn’t know what a train sounded like.
The film’s commitment to hitting only the bullet points of Cézanne’s and Zola’s friendship and the overlong shots of scenery meant to recall Cezanne’s paintings combine to make a film that sometimes seems more educational than entertaining.
Also perplexing is the film’s commitment to hitting only the bullet points of Cézanne’s and Zola’s friendship, as well as only touching on notable events and personalities of the day with brief encyclopedia-style mentions that don’t easily integrate into the dialogue. That and the overlong shots of scenery meant to recall Cezanne’s painting combine to make a film that seems more educational than entertaining.
As the pair get older, their friendship seems more sentimental than authentic. Similarly, as Cézanne et moi moves past the events of 1888 and closer to the end of the century, it too gets sentimental and a touch inauthentic, with some beautiful shots meant to invoke Cézanne’s paintings, made less notable by the use of CGI. That said, the scenes over the end credits use CGI in the way it was intended, creating a breathtaking montage of the Mont Sainte-Victoire series.
Along with the sentimentality comes the problem too obvious to ignore: both Zola and Cézanne took their personal problems out on each other through what they claimed was professional criticism, but what they say about each others’ art isn’t what they literally mean. They’re hurt, sometimes justifiably, other times not, and attack the others’ art, talent, and even loved ones for a little light revenge. Apparently, even exceptional authors and brilliant painters will say things that are demonstrably false, but which, in some skewed way, reflect their feelings if not the truth.
Cézanne et moi is a beautiful film about a complicated friendship, but its commitment to hitting only the bullet points of Paul Cézanne's and Emile Zola's friendship, as well as the overlong shots of scenery meant to recall Cezanne's paintings, combine to make a film that sometimes seems more educational than entertaining.