Cezanne et moi is a Masterpiece--About Friendshiip

CÉZANNE ET MOI (2016/17)
Directed by Danièle Thompson
Pathè, 116 minutes, R (language, nudity)

Cézanne et moi takes a look at two men whose work changed Western culture: painter Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and writer Emile Zola (1840-1902). Cézanne was among the first to declare Impression a spent force that had degenerated into inconsequential decorativeness. His Post-Impressionist works bridged the transition to Modernism with such impact that Picasso declared him, “The father of us all.” Zola was twice nominated for Pulitzer Prizes in literature. His 20-volume Rouzon-Macquart series—which includes his masterwork Germinal (1885)—is the definitive fictional take on the tumultuous years in which France threw off the reign of Louis Napoleon (1852-70) and established the Third Republic (1870-1940), though Zola also skewered the latter in a famed 1894 work, J’accuse in which he exposed the depths of French anti-Semitism.

Now this is out of the way, let me say that everything you’ve just read is secondary in Cézanne et moi. The film is really about deep friendship, tempestuous personalities, egoism, and the wounds that can be forgiven and those that cannot. It is easily the best new film I have seen this year. Don't listen to cranky reviewers whose idea of subtlety is a pause before something blows up. I was hooked from the opening sequences through the closing credits—and be sure to be settled in your seat to drink in both of them. In the first, master cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou lingers over jars of ocher, tubes of paint, vials of oil, and genre painting setups. It may be the lushest use of color I have seen since Scorsese’s Age of Innocence (1993). It is also the calm before the storm.

The movie opens with a schoolyard fight in which young Zola is being thrashed by elementary school bigots for being half Italian. (The child actor so evokes Jean-Pierre Léaud as to suggest homage to 400 Blows.) Zola is rescued by Cézanne in what may be the only fight he never started. This was the beginning of a deep friendship that stretched in the 1890s, when Cézanne’s perpetual enfant terrible behavior clashed too deeply with Zola’s bourgeois comfort and crippling self-doubts. Love is not too strong a word to describe their deep bond, the depths of which made their periodic estrangements tragically sad.   

Director Danièle Thompson uses a kaleidoscopic overview to highlight the Three Musketeers-like boyhood and adolescence of Paul, Emile, and their rotund sidekick Anchille. It works effectively to get us to a young adulthood in which Emile (Guillame Canet) is an impoverished and frustrated writer catching sparrows to feed himself and his widowed mother, Émilie* (Isabelle Candelier). By contrast, Paul (Guillaume Gallienne) is the son of haute bourgeois parents, though he is about to be cast out by an imperious father who finds Paul’s paintings offensive and frivolous. No matter, Emile and Paul assuage their setbacks in a whirlwind of café life, intellectual discourse with other disaffecteds (Pissaro, Monet, Renoir, de Maupassant), the occasional street brawl--like an infamous assault on well-heeled snobs at the 1863 Salon des Refusés--and mutual admiration of each other’s work, a task generally involving one telling the other that his failure complex is misguided. Paul also drowns his troubles in drink, trading art for paint, and models who are often also prostitutes—including Gabrielle (Alice Pol), who will later reemerge as Alexadrine Zola! 

Thompson takes us back and forth in time quickly so she can linger on Zola and Cézanne as adults. We see stunning role reversals: the hotheaded Paul living in rustic squalor amidst the tranquil countryside of Aix-en-Provence versus the measured Zola who thrives on the noise and political crises of Paris while slowly settling into the bourgeois life he outwardly detests.** These contradictions are among the topics of discussion that take place as the two stroll amidst the eye-popping ocher cliffs near Roussillon or in Zola’s stuffed, posh office. Slowly, but inexorably, mutual admiration gives way to mutual recrimination.

This film is a delight for the eyes and not just because of the colorful cliffs and lithe female nudes. Provence’s Montagne Sainte-Victoire, the dam Zola’s father built, Zola’s study, and the French countryside are characters in their own right, as is the Provencal light. Pay attention to how Dreujou contrasts Provence’s radiance with the shadow and subdued light of Paris or Zola’s home. We see this technique also in the somber and smoky hues of the tenements and cafés and sun-dappled Provencal picnics that are like tableaux of Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe. (Both men hated Manet’s work, by the way!) But the clash that divides is the erosion of support and respect for one another as it slides into hyper-critical attacks and unexamined self-centeredness.

Cézanne et moi is exceedingly well acted, with lots of juicy small parts expertly brushed into the film’s canvas. It is also superbly directed and, at turns, tender and heartbreaking. For my money, it’s hard to imagine we will see better cinematography in an upcoming film (though bet on some summer blockbuster winning the Oscar). This film made me think of friendship as a fragile figurine that must be handled with care, lest if fall and shatter. (Think ye of that high school yearbook with its sincere BFF inscriptions from people you’ve not had contact in decades.) Call this one a work of genius about two geniuses who made imprudent decisions.***


Rob Weir     

* The Zola family fortunes took a nosedive when Emile’s Italian-born father, an engineer who built a dam in Aix, died when Emile was just three. In the 1840s, an age before insurance was widespread, the death of a male breadwinner often spelled instant poverty.

**As an ironic footnote, Cézanne’s father left him a small fortune. Today, Cézanne’s work is far better known than Zola’s, though the latter is still considered a literary pillar.

 *** Among other bad calls: Cézanne smashed many of his canvasses and neither had the healthiest of relationships with women other than their mothers.

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