“moi” in this case is Emile Zola, who was also the “I” in the Dreyfuss Affair J’Accuse. Despite his tremendous
literary success at the time, Zola is now best known outside of France for his
personal associations: the defender of the unjustly convicted captain and the estranged
friend of Impressionist-forerunner Paul Cézanne. Opting for intimate drama over
grand scandals, Danièle Thompson focuses squarely on the latter relationship
throughout Cézanne et Moi (trailer here), which opens this
Friday in New York.
1888, Cézanne visits his old friend Zola for the final time. Initially, they
are cordial and even nostalgic, but the publication of Zola’s novel The Masterpiece hangs over the meeting.
Everyone in the Smart Set considers the self-destructive protagonist to be a
thinly veiled portrait of Cézanne, especially Cézanne himself. As the painter
and the novelist dance around the issue, Thompson flashes back to episodes from
their childhood and their early years scuffling in Paris.
we see them switch positions. Zola, the naturalized Italian, will rise up out
of his family’s mean circumstances to become one of the most widely read
writers of his day. Conversely, Cézanne is born to privilege, but will be
spurned by the art establishment as well as polite society. Nevertheless, he
stubbornly adhered to his own artistic vision, earning an only partly unfair
reputation for being a misanthropic recluse as a result.
C et Moi might have made a
better stage play than a motion picture. The title roles offer a great deal of
meat for two somewhat more mature actors to chew on. The classy subject matter
also holds an obvious appeal to costume drama fans. Thompson seems to recognize
she lacks the lightness of touch that made the best Merchant-Ivory films such
lovely jewel boxes. Instead, she takes the film in another direction, penning
some brutally frank, cruelly caustic exchanges. Indeed, the best scenes in the
film focus on the two artistic giants, as they carve into each other as only
formerly close comrades can.
Gallienne (of the Comédie-Française) and Guillaume Canet are terrific as Cézanne
and Zola, respectively, at least when they get to really play off each other
(whereas, the flashbacks to their student years feel like routine historical
drama exposition.) However, Alice Pol adds an element of unpredictability as
befits Zola’s once scandalous wife Alexndrine (as she is now known).
Jean-Marie Dreujou makes the Provence landscape
sparkle—a contribution Cézanne would surely appreciate. It is a richly
appointed period production, but Éric Nevaux’s dully respectable themes lack
any sort of flavor or texture. Still, Thompson and the two Guillaumes always
make us believe these two men are so deeply connected, they know exactly what
to say to hurt each other the most. Recommended for fans of classy French
cinema, Cézanne et Moi opens this
Friday (3/31) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine.
Labels: Daniele Thompson, Emile Zola, French Cinema, Paul Cezanne