A bit on the dry side and a darling at the recently ended European Union Film Festival, Cézanne et Moi, the latest work from writer-director Danièle Thompson (La bûche, Avenue Montaigne, Jet Lag), is a curious look at the lifelong friendship between painter Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne) and writer Émile Zola (Guillaume Canet). There were times watching this film that I felt genuinely undereducated in both art history and European literature, and so “inside” references to key Cézanne works and pretty much all of Zola’s novels, especially L’Œuvre, a barely fictional account of Zola’s troubled relationship with Cézanne, which revealed a great deal about the way one felt about and saw the other.
The film bounces around in time for much of the film—from the pair as childhood pals, drawn together by their outside status at school. And although Cézanne came from means, he chose to live a decadent, broke artist’s life, borrowing money from various friends but never really succeeding as an artist until very late in life. On the other hand, Zola was born in Paris to a poor Italian father and French mother. Although he become a successful writer at a fairly young age, he never stopped writing about the proletariat. The pair had few common interests but hung out among other artists and creative types in Paris and seemed to revel in being rebellious and intent on living life with few apologies. This would change.
Romantic entanglements often confused their minds and caused them to question their way of living. Zola moved to the country, and his success seemed to make Cézanne envious. Slowly but surely, a wedge formed between them, especially when Zola married Alexandrine (Alice Pol), who used to sleep with Cézanne and pretty much everyone else they knew. The painter eventually countered by marrying his model Hortense (Déborah François), but despite their having a child, that relationship seemed doomed early on.
Cézanne et moi takes full advantage of some lovely locations, including areas in Provence where the artist actually did work. But without a full working knowledge of the artistic or literary period on display (the film follows the two deep into their sunset years of the late 1800s), I’m afraid I was a bit unsure which characters were important to know and which were simply people passing through their tumultuous lives. Since I’m more familiar with Cézanne’s work, it was easier to follow his stories and associations with other, more recognizable painters of the time, but (as the title implies) the film is primarily told from Zola’s point of view, it left me feeling like I was playing catch up.
Still, the performances are exceptional, especially Gallienne’s Cézanne, who could be among the most wicked and cruel men you’d ever call friend, and never misses an opportunity to put someone down in one breath while asking them for money with the next. But he was much loved by Zola’s family, especially his mother, and this kept him coming back into Zola’s increasingly opulent estate. It’s certainly not a terrible film, but I could easily point you in the direction of 10 better ones to see this weekend. For those of you with refined tastes, you might find something interest here, but I haven’t taken an art history class since 1989, so I was left a bit baffled.
The film opens today in the suburbs at the Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park and the Glen Art Theatre in Glen Ellyn.