Film Review: Cézanne et Moi

Pretentious, windy and largely empty bromance between two of the greatest figures of French culture in the 19th century.
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Did you know that the writer Emile Zola and the painter Paul Cézanne were BFFs? Well, Danièle Thompson’s double biopic Cézanne et Moi is here to fill you in on the deets, with the two 19th-century greats played by two Guillaumes, Canet as Zola and Gallienne as Cézanne. In Thompson’s telling, however, they are more like eternal frenemies, constantly arguing about art and life, which turns into heavy bickering, personal attacks and dramatic leave-takings and ruptures. Until the next time they meet.

It all becomes rather tedious, not helped by the deadly aura of “Great Man’s Biopic” rife with glibly impersonated period celebrities saying things like “Hey, [Berthe] Morisot, what about a snuggle?” which hang heavily over the production. Thompson’s screenplay is a shallow thing, resolutely focusing on the more obviously dramatic torment inherent in the creative process rather than its rewards and indeed shows very little of the actual process itself, whether it be painting or writing. Cézanne, in particular, is presented as a ticking time bomb, Bohemian-unkempt, of course, and forever railing against the prevailing conventionality in his field which continually rejects him, when he isn’t dissolving into a self-pitying morass. He and Zola evoke a Gallic, more cultured Abbott and Costello, with Canet largely playing the also narcissistic but more reined-in Zola (suffering the accusations of vulgar obscenity, especially after his successful novel, Nana) as long-suffering straight man to his combustible, paint-smeared buddy.

Thompson occasionally breaks away from her focus on their bromance to stage excruciating dinner scenes with their compatriots (Manet! Renoir! Pissarro!) dropping names and precious apercus about art that may find you gnashing your teeth. The film’s main distinction is its striking cinematography by Jean-Marie Dreujou, which at times seems to be paying appropriate homage to Cézanne’s Impressionist oeuvre, with striking shots of grey and wet Paris streets, and the ravishing countryside which so inspired all the painters of the era.

Locked into Thompson’s synthetic conception of their characters, neither lead actor shows much distinction or even real charisma so essential to our identifying with them on any level. Canet is a bit dull, while Gallienne actually becomes quite obnoxious, with his constant attempts to shock the bourgeoisie—which the formerly impoverished Zola has joined, to his dismay—and verbal arias about his own sexual impotence. Luckily, the women, although largely shunted to the side in their subsidiary roles of nude model (i.e., whore) or wifely helpmeet (i.e., Madonna) supply some identifiably human verve to the film. Alice Pol as Alexandrine, the woman who came into their lives, first as a fling for Cézanne and later as Zola’s wife, radiantly manages to convey just what it was about her that obsessed both men. Déborah François, as Cézanne’s wife and model, has a good, fiery moment when, utterly fed up with the man who remarks, “I fuck her too quickly and paint her too slowly,” she excoriates his monstrous selfishness. The artists’ mothers are vividly portrayed by Isabelle Candelier and Sabine Azéma, who really shines with her brusque intelligence and refulgent warmth.

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