When we first see Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne) and Emile Zola (Guillaume Canet) in Danièle Thompson’s Cézanne et Moi, greeting each other after a long absence, they look as if they might kiss each other on the lips. Though platonic, their relationship was undoubtedly a love affair, one as torrid and passionate as any great romance and just as bitter in its ultimate dissolution—perhaps even more so as it results not just from the vagaries of personal emotion, but from the very essence of their lives’ work.
Opening on their ultimately acrimonious final meeting, the film flashes back to numerous encounters throughout their long relationship, from their close childhood friendship to their late-in-life falling out over Zola’s depiction, in his novel L’Œuvre, of a resentful, unsuccessful artist clearly modeled on Cézanne. The stuffy Zola (played by Canet with a tightly coiled introspection that recalls William Hurt) contrasts sharply with his surly friend, whose disdainful attitude and vulgar jokes alienate him from polite society. As they grow older, Zola lurches toward financial success and bourgeois respectability, while Cézanne maintains his intense creative passion, toiling away in obscurity in Aix-en-Provence, an outcast even among contemporaries like Manet and Pissarro: “Refused by the Refusés,” Cézanne remarks.
Peppered with interesting factoids about its subjects (Zola would often get an erection while writing, for example), Cézanne et Moi captures a sense of how the ways in which these two men’s wildly different personalities ultimately drove them apart even as their long history together kept them inextricably intertwined. But the film’s episodic structure and flat direction ultimately turn the tumult of Cézanne and Zola’s relationship into a repetitious airing of grievances, with practically every encounter devolving into a heated exchange or bitter shouting match. Meanwhile, the screenplay barely even scratches the surface of the animating force of Cézanne and Zola’s lives: their art.
For all the scenes of Cézanne angrily destroying his own paintings and Zola expressing doubts about his writing ability, Thompson provides only the vaguest sense of what these men were trying to express in their work. Cézanne’s radical transmutation of sensory experience into pigment on campus—“The landscape,” he once observed, “thinks itself in me, and I am its consciousness”—is suggested primarily by some picture-postcard shots of Provence, which, while attractive, do little to convey the artist’s almost mystical relationship to nature. The social conscience and journalistic observation of Zola’s novels, meanwhile, are scarcely even hinted at aside from a few offhand references to Napoleon III and the Dreyfus affair.
Thompson in essence reduces the artistry of these men to an archetypal conflict between selling out on the one hand and maintaining one’s artistic integrity on the other. It’s a simplistic flattening of Cézanne and Zola’s clashing aesthetic visions that does little to illuminate their lives or their art. The film closes with a shot of Montagne Sainte-Victoire, which morphs into a montage of Cézanne’s numerous paintings of this location. The still-astonishing radicalism of these works bursts from the screen like a thunderbolt after the two hours of muddled conventionality that precedes them. This simple juxtaposition of art and reality ultimately reveals more about Cézanne’s lifelong artistic passion—what John Berger called his “love affair, his liaison, with the visible”—than the rest of the film combined.