Legendary Bromance: Danièle Thompson depicts the longtime friendship of Cézanne and Zola

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With Cézanne et Moi, Magnolia Pictures releases a lavish period two-hander in gorgeously accessorized gloves, as its sprawling production canvas could be described. The time is roughly the last half of the 19th century and this dual biopic about the friendship between childhood friends and emerging artists Paul Cézanne, the great Post-Impressionist painter-to-be, and writer Emile Zola, the literary embodiment of naturalism, was fashioned by renowned French writer-director Danièle Thompson.

Well-known in France for many films, she early on collaborated on scripts with her famous comedic filmmaker father Gérard Oury and is most familiar stateside for Avenue Montaigne, which she directed and co-scripted with her son Christopher, and as Oscar-nominated co-writer for the mid-’70s art-house sensation Cousin, Cousine.

On this latest collaboration, Thompson so immersed herself in research on the two artists she maintains that “Cézanne and Zola became my family.” But she had a more concrete collaboration with two of France’s top actors for the leading roles: actor/director Guillaume Canet (art-house hit Tell No one, among many projects), as Zola, the more grounded of the two men, and Guillaume Gallienne of the esteemed Comédie-Française as the more complicated, rebellious Cézanne. In spite of having “les deux Guillaumes” sharing the same first names on her set, she says she “managed quite nicely.” The American art-house crowd will remember Gallienne for his remarkable portrayal of Pierre Bergé, the lover-business partner of the star designer in the recently acclaimed Yves St. Laurent.

Rather than mining the remarkable historic events that took place in the last half of the 1800s (the fall of an empire and birth of a new one, the Franco-Prussian war, the tragic Paris Commune, the onset of industrialization, the Dreyfus affair), Cézanne et Moi is a story of youth, friendship, ironic circumstances and the rupture of a decades-old bond rather than a deep dive into creativity and what constitute great art.

Thompson knows her focus: “The films is about two friends who throughout their lives try to remain the childhood friends they once were, but no longer are. It’s as strong as a love story, if not more so. Like they say in the film, friendship is harder than love.”

And then there’s the ironic counterpoint of the two entwined lives depicted. Zola is born into a poor family without a father but aspires to succeed as a writer and attain the bourgeois status, wealth and comfort which have so long eluded him. (Not depicted in the film is the additional renown he attained at the turn of the century as a result of his political advocacy for the wrongfully convicted Jewish Army captain Alfred Dreyfus.)

Cézanne, on the other hand, was born into wealth but was hobbled in his maturation and as an artist by a disapproving, strict, bourgeois father. Such circumstances help explain the rebellious artist’s bad behavior and attitude that led to his poor bohemian lifestyle so many degrees removed from Zola’s path. Not surprisingly, it was Zola who achieved success much earlier than Cézanne— another pressure put on their long-term friendship.

In spite of such disparate backgrounds, they met and bonded in the early 1850s as young schoolboys in their hometown of southern France’s Aix-en-Provence and remained close for decades, most amusingly into their university years in Paris as determined artists, a time that especially captured Thompson’s interest. “I discovered young men on the way to becoming something. Men in their intimacy, in their daily lives, which were anything but remarkable. They weren’t legends, they weren’t icons, just young men with friends, problems, dreams, weaknesses and hopes.”

Canet’s Zola is in his 20s and making a go at being a writer and dealing with the usual struggles that are also aggravated by a background in poverty. Cézanne, who long after was to become a master helping usher in 20th-century modern art, had his own challenges, having to do with Impressionism in Paris and the art world of the 1860s being the rage but not his style.

Thompson’s main concerns in Cézanne et Moi aren’t on artistic achievement and what it takes to get there, nor even on the hope that burns and drives these determined artists or even their amorous entanglements with women (sometimes the same ones). But her film remains warmly evocative of such youthful aspirations, dalliances and the follies that arise from them. She took inspiration from the social boldness of the 1960s generation for the spirit, energy, rebellion and sexual indulgences that drive the young artists of a century earlier. “These young Parisian strivers who dressed differently and were so against bourgeois life and who indulged in very active sex lives—I recognized their kind of abandon, determination and fighting spirit and even optimism in the 1960s upheaval.”

In addition to her focus on a long-held friendship, Cézanne et Moi takes a surprising turn into the realm of mystery: What was it that so brutally cut short that bond? On this trail, Thompson bookends her tale with the key episode of the late 1880s that has a furious, still scruffy and highly impulsive Cézanne, not yet recognized as the master he will become, paying a visit to Zola, now a highly successful writer and wealthy bourgeois ensconced in a lovely villa in Médan near Paris and living the kind of life his artist friend was born into and abandoned. It seems, according to Cézanne, that a character in Zola’s latest book L’Oeuvre mocks an artist character who, in the opinion of his visiting friend, too closely resembles him.

This possibility has never been documented, so taking on such a challenge for her biopic required a lot of research, especially after Thompson fell into some little known facts. Intrigued by both artists, she says that at first “it was out of pure pleasure that I submerged myself into their lives, not knowing whether I’d even find subject matter for a film. I read and read—books, letters, whatever—and took tons of notes. I was absolutely fascinated by everything I found, by everything I learned… I followed the paths they trod, both literally and figuratively. I consulted Zola’s manuscripts at the Bibliothèque Nationale [France’s equivalent of the Library of Congress]. Seeing words crossed out by his own hand was so moving. I went to museums, observing with a fresh eye the paintings that connected me to the texts, taking pictures of the ones that spoke to me, on the walls, in books, on the Internet. I compiled albums with all these images and documents. I felt like I was living in the nineteenth century.”

Only by sheer accident during such research did she read about the break in their friendship. But then came a new discovery that would inspire the final button—a resolution perhaps—to the story.

One of the most plausible explanations of their growing apart, Thompson believes, is Zola’s book. She believes that the writer’s inspiration for it “was Cézanne, their youth and friendship, their obsessions and discussions. But Zola also did what novelists do with the truth: He took liberties with their lives, with the art scene, creating situations that weren’t entirely true, if at all. If he could take those liberties, so could I.”

Just as Zola was inspired, so was Thompson. So the book could have been the cause, but how about the final confrontation at Médan that has never been documented? Another “Voilà!” struck. This was when Thompson met during her research Michel Fraisset, the curator of Cézanne’s workshop near Aix which the artist used during his last years and which is open to the public. Notes Thompson, “It’s a very moving place, with its wicker baskets…his smock…” The visit was also important because “Fraisset asked me, ‘Do you know Cézanne’s last letter to Zola…a letter that was sold at Sotheby’s three months ago?’”

This newly discovered letter, as she tells it, was from 1887 (previously their last known correspondence—cordial in tone—was from 1886) and this new correspondence “ends with Cézanne telling Zola, ‘I am going to come see you.’” So Thompson realized that her “dramatic license,” as she calls it, to conjure Cézanne’s confrontation regarding what he thought was his slanderous depiction in the book was, in her words, “suddenly plausible…and what I imagined may really have happened!” Of course, she read L’Oeuvre and vehemently contends that its artist, though not named Cézanne, is based on him and is insulting. “When you read it, you can put yourself in Cézanne’s place and understand his reaction, as the details are so close to the truth and this portrait of the hero makes him both a character and a loser. His rage was easy for me to understand.”

Thompson agrees that “Cézanne was the more colorful and the more complex of the two—he had that angry-young-man aspect which, parenthetically, he took a long time to outgrow.”

When Guillaume Gallienne, who plays the hotheaded artist, was asked what he felt was most important to convey about the artist’s personality, he retorted— Cézanne style—“How could I be a fucking pain in the neck?”

Canet delivers a fine but less scenery-chewing performance as Zola, the quiet, intellectual type and homebody who has given into the clichés of the bourgeoisie, an ironic counterpoint to their backgrounds as Gallienne's Cézanne is slightly off the rails with his reckless abandon and impetuous instincts as an artist rejected by society but solely focused on his own underappreciated work.

Thompson pulls back from exaggerating these differences, as “my goal was to make them equally alive.” The drama was always in the forefront, so “what really interested me was to dig into the intimate lives of these people—these icons—and maybe kick them a little off their pedestals.”

Whatever the authenticity of the intrigue and circumstances that finally separated these longtime friends, Thompson has woven a fun thread into a beautiful cinematic tapestry of both the magnificent Provence countryside and real locations.

The smaller town of Moulins serves as a convincing stand-in for the student days spent in Paris, says Thompson, “but we did shoot quite a bit in the places where the story actually did happen, including Zola’s garden at Médan and Cézanne’s hut where he painted and his father’s elegant house near Aix.”

Also informing her work was her revisiting a number of films like Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh, Jean Renoir’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Bertrand Tavernier’s A Sunday in the Country which took place approximately during the same period as Cézanne et Moi and exploited the breathtaking beauty of similar pastoral settings.

Even if her “What if” wasn’t, there remains the convincing depiction of the fact-based bond between these French masters—a reality that might also resonate with stateside viewers as a stylish, thrilling French spin on that very American notion of a bromance. Like romance itself—its close relative—this one between two great friends died like so many, but Cézanne’s paintings and Zola’s writings did grant each man immortality.