Cézanne et Moi

The Washington Post - - MOVIES - BY ANN HOR­NA­DAY ann.hor­na­day@wash­post.com

The French drama tells of the friend­ship be­tween writer Emile Zola and the French painter.

“Cézanne et moi” cap­tures the world at a cru­cial pivot point, when art was worth fight­ing about and had the power to change the world. The “moi” of the ti­tle hap­pens to be the novelist Emile Zola; the film, writ­ten and di­rected by Danièle Thomp­son, chron­i­cles the near-life­long friend­ship be­tween two men who grew up in Aix en Provence, be­came starv­ing artists to­gether in Paris, fought over women and money and artis­tic prin­ci­ples, and fi­nally met two iron­i­cally dif­fer­ent fates.

Guil­laume Canet de­liv­ers a deco­rous, watch­ful por­trayal of Zola, an Ital­ian im­mi­grant who is taunted when he arrives in Aix as a father­less child; it’s a kid named Paul Cézanne — played as an adult by Guil­laume Gal­li­enne — who comes to his res­cue. Al­though he comes from money, Cézanne de­tests the bour­geois busi­ness world his fa­ther wants for him; when Zola moves to Paris with his mother, work­ing on the docks and cap­tur­ing song­birds on the street for mea­ger din­ners, Cézanne arrives with a flour­ish. Soon the two are drink­ing with the likes of Renoir, Manet and Pis­sarro, and em­bark­ing on plein-air pic­nics with other artists and bo­hemian friends.

Tog­gling be­tween those scenes of youth and an ac­ri­mo­nious re­union in 1888 — when Cézanne stren­u­ously ob­jects to his oblique por­trayal in Zola’s novel “L’ Oeu­vre” — “Cézanne et moi” is an ar­rest­ing, at­trac­tively staged ex­am­i­na­tion of two men de­ter­mined to blow open the for­mal lan­guages they’re work­ing in, in Zola’s case to bring tougher re­al­ism to the French novel. He suc­ceeds, and be­comes rich and fa­mous. Cézanne wanted to dig even deeper, by­pass­ing re­al­ism to get to the more ab­stract essence of things, be­yond the pas­tel washes of im­pres­sion­ism. He suc­ceeded as well, but not in time to be­come a liv­ing le­gend. An­chored by two su­perb per­for­mances — es­pe­cially Gal­li­enne’s tetchy, tem­per­a­men­tal ti­tle char­ac­ter — “Cézanne et moi” never does com­plete vis­ual or nar­ra­tive jus­tice to the painter’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary, pro­tocu­bist eye. But it’s a touch­ing evo­ca­tion of friend­ship, broth­erly com­pe­ti­tion and artis­tic courage at the cusp of a new cen­tury.

R. At Cin­ema Arts Theatre and Land­mark’s West End Cin­ema. Con­tains pro­fan­ity, sex­ual ref­er­ences and nu­dity. In French with sub­ti­tles. 117 min­utes.

LUC ROUX/MAG­NO­LIA PIC­TURES

Guil­laume Canet, left, and Guil­laume Gal­li­enne star as French artists and friends Emile Zola and Paul Cézanne, re­spec­tively, only one of whom got to en­joy leg­endary fame in his life­time.

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