“CEZANNE ET MOI” My rating: B
117 minutes | MPAA rating: R
Real friends can endure almost anything.
In the case of the famous true friendship shared by novelist Emile Zola and post-impressionist painter Paul Cezanne, it meant enduring class differences, professional jealousy, romantic entanglements and, perhaps, a touch of mental illness.
“Cezanne et Moi,” the latest from writer/director Daniele Thompson, attempts nothing less than to encapsulate a nearly 70-year relationship between two giants of French arts. Not that it was always a given that both of them would become artistic immortals.
The boys met when Cezanne, a son of provincial wealth, befriended new-kid-in-town Zola. Their adventures in the forests and mountains around Aix cemented a connection that could not be broken even by the disapproval of Cezanne’s father, who thought the Italian-born Zola no respectable companion for his up-and-coming son.
Ironically, it is the financially strapped Zola (played as an adult by Guillaume Canet) who first scores success with novels like 1867’s Therese Paquin. Money and celebrity follow…much to the consternation of Cezanne (Guillaume Gallienne), who has been disowned by his family and struggles to find the artistic style that finally will be his enduring legacy. (It will be a long struggle; Cezanne’s genius wasn’t recognized until late in his life.)
Cezanne becomes an unwashed antisocial brawler (he instigates a fistfight with swells who dare criticize Manet’s “Dejuener sur l’herbe”), a drinker and a frequenter of whorehouses. He is driven to paint, yet for most of his life his painting isn’t particularly good.
He resents Zola’s success and bourgeoise lifestyle, especially after Zola marries a former seamstress (Alice Pol) with whom both men had been intimate.
Even worse, Cezanne finds himself fictionally depicted in Zola’s novels and, in effect, doing research for the author. Too sexually uptight to to actually visit the dens of inequity he is writing about, Zola relies on Cezanne’s misadventures for ideas.
Yet throughout much of their lives, Zola secretly deposits money with the impoverished Cezanne’s common-law wife (Deborah Francois).
(There are more than a few echoes here of the relationship between Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo, the subjects of Robert Altman’s 1990 film “Vincent & Theo.”)
Thompson’s screenplay leapfrogs across the decades, from the furor of the impressionist era to the two men’s dotage (the actors age quite believably). Sometimes many years pass between their meetings, yet after exchanging news, insults and airing old grievances, the two come together. Each realizes that there is no other person on Earth to whom they are closer.
The film is a Who’s Who of namedropping (Camille Pissarro, Eduard Manet, Berthe Morisot show up as incidental characters) and certain scenes are drop-dead gorgeous…Jean-Marie Dreujou’s cinematography perfectly captures the intoxicating mix of natural setting, light and atmosphere that mark Cezanne’s best work.
Moreover, “Cezanne et Moi” has a lived-in feel. To watch it is to believe we’re eavesdropping on lives.
| Robert W. Butler