CÉZANNE ET MOI, drama, R, in French with subtitles, The Screen,
Paul Cézanne and Émile Zola met as schoolboys in Aix-en-Provence in 1852, where Cézanne’s family lived and Zola’s had moved for temporary work. Cézanne, whose family was well off, is boisterous and extroverted; Zola is thoughtful, shy, and dirt-poor. The movie has their friendship beginning in a schoolyard fight, and remaining strong through good times and bad as the two men travel very different career paths. Zola struggles for a time, but achieves enormous success with his writing, and gradually drifts into the ossified haute bourgeoisie that he made his reputation by criticizing. Acceptance as a painter is painfully more elusive for Cézanne. He doesn’t start off with much of a talent for drawing, and is not considered an equal by his friends and colleagues, including Manet and the Impressionists. He is a among the
The movie jumps around in time with the bewildering alacrity of a vaudeville quick-change artist, sometimes identifying the moves with time stamps (Paris, 1863) on the screen. It opens with the arrival of Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne) at the home outside of Paris of his old friend Zola (Guillaume Canet), now an established writer of considerable means. The visit begins with an embrace, but it soon becomes clear that the painter has been deeply wounded by his old friend’s latest novel. The book is Zola’s 1886 roman à clef (The Masterpiece), and its central character is an artist who is clearly, and not always flatteringly, built on Cézanne. Zola protests that fiction is not fact, that he has drawn on many people in creating his characters, but the uncomfortable truth that writers cannibalize their friends is inescapable. “In love, you forgive betrayal,” Cézanne says. “In friendship, it is harder.”
Cézanne is a difficult character, obsessive, abrasive, and foul-mouthed in polite company, and repeatedly characterized by Zola and others as incapable of love. It is this weakness for repetition that weighs down an otherwise well-drawn portrait of a fascinating friendship. There are several scenes of Cézanne being wounded by overheard conversations disparaging his talents, more of him rampaging and offending friends, acquaintances, and lovers. We spend a lot of time with Cézanne as he paints, but for some reason, writer-director Danièle Thompson chooses only rarely to show us a glimpse of what he is putting on canvas.
The acting is excellent, the dialogue is good, the cinematography is everything you would hope for in a period piece about artists. The portrait of a long and complicated friendship between two geniuses both haunted by terrors of inadequacy is beautifully drawn. But even at a running time that leaves a handful of change out of two hours, the movie begins to drag long before the end titles fill us in on Cézanne’s late-blooming success. — Jonathan Richards