Cezanne et Moi (2016) Magnolia/Drama RT: 116 minutes Rated R (language, sexual references, nudity) Director: Daniele Thompson Screenplay: Daniel Thompson Music: Eric Neveux Cinematography: Jean-Marie Dreujou Release date: April 14, 2017 (US) Cast: Guillaume Canet, Guillaume Gallienne, Alice Pol, Deborah Francois, Isabelle Candelier, Freya Mavor, Sabine Azema, Gerard Meylan, Laurent Stocker, Pierre Yvon. Spoken in French w/English subtitles
I saw an exhibit of Paul Cezanne’s paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1996. I was impressed. I saw the 1937 Best Picture winner The Life of Emile Zola in 2012. I was also impressed. Yesterday, I saw Cezanne et Moi which chronicles the lifelong friendship/rivalry between the famed 19th century artist and writer. I was NOT impressed. I’ll be blunt, it’s a bore. At least that’s what I think. For the life of me, I could not get into it and it wasn’t for lack of trying. I wanted to LOVE it. It does, after all, center on two prolific figures in French culture. One, an Post-Impressionist artist who defied convention and laid the groundwork for a radically different world of art in the 20th century; the other, a novelist highly critical of French government who often wrote about social injustice and inequality. It was he who helped clear the name of a Jewish officer in the army of treason (this is never mentioned in the movie). By all means, Cezanne et Moi should have been great. Alas, it’s not.
By way of narrative framework, the movie opens in 1888 with Cezanne (Gallienne, Yves Saint Laurent) visiting Zola (Canet, In the Name of My Daughter) at his estate. It’s clear that there’s tension between the two friends. We are then shown the history of their friendship beginning when they were school boys who met after Cezanne saved Italian immigrant Zola from an attack by a gang of classmates. Zola was always outspoken; Cezanne’s upper class family did not approve of their friendship. As young men, they both moved to Paris to seek their fortune as artists; one with a brush, the other with a pen. It isn’t easy. They see many lean years before Zola makes a name for himself. Cezanne, on other hand, made people angry with his paintings which many considered vulgar.
Their friendship wasn’t without its obstacles and pitfalls. A woman, Alexandrine (Pol, Queen to Play), came between them. Zola liked her from afar but it was Cezanne who made the first move. Eventually, she would marry Zola (who later took a much younger mistress) although she still posed for Cezanne who called her “Gabrielle”. So what is it that caused the most trouble in their friendship and effectively ended it? Zola based a character in one of his books on Cezanne and the depiction wasn’t what you’d call complimentary. But if know French art and/or literary history, you already know this. You are also one of the select few to whom Cezanne et Moi will appeal.
I believe in giving credit where it’s due so I’ll start with the positive. On an aesthetic level, Cezanne et Moi is good. It’s beautiful to look at with all the French countryside scenery. The sets, costumes and interiors are completely authentic to the time. It’s a bright, sunshiny picture with lots of vibrant colors. At times, it even looks like one of the landscapes Cezanne painted. The women, Freya Mavor (recently of The Sense of an Ending) in particular, are also lovely to look at. She plays Jeanne, the seamstress who would eventually become his lover and father his two children. The acting in Cezanne et Moi is also good. Gallienne plays Cezanne as crude, opinionated, temperamental and jealous of the recognition his peers receive for their work while his is routinely rejected. He’s the rich boy trying to escape the constraints forced on his by his bourgeois family. Canet plays Zola as an intelligent, well-spoken kind of guy raised by a single parent (his father died when he was very young) and is used to living under modest circumstances. He also tends to be arrogant and full of himself. The two men were, to each other, muses and rivals.
For all its aesthetic worth, the narrative weakens Cezanne et Moi exponentially. It’s slow and uninvolving, not what you want to hear about a film dealing with the artistic process. It would have been nice if writer-director Daniele Thompson (Queen Margot) had shown more of the characters’ work. We only see a few completed paintings and hear a few passages from Zola’s books. Why not show more of the creative process behind the work that’s now regarded as classic art and literature? Instead, we get a movie that’s little more than a soap opera about a historical bromance. It name-drops like crazy with mentions of Manet, Flaubert and Bazille. As much as I liked looking at Cezanne et Moi, I couldn’t wait for it to finally be over. It’s the second time in as many weeks that I disliked a foreign film (the other being the Japanese import After the Storm). I cannot, in all good consciousness, recommend Cezanne et Moi for anyone other than college students majoring in art or French lit.