Review: 'Cezanne et Moi'

Exploring the friendship and falling out of Emile Zola and Paul Cezanne
Paul Cézanne feels betrayed by his friend and contemporary Emile Zola in Cézanne et Moi.

The motto of Cézanne et Moi could be taken from Jay Parini's biography of Gore Vidal: Every Time a Friend Succeeds, Something Inside of Me Dies.

Writer Emile Zola (the William Hurt-like Guillaume Canet) and the post-impressionist Paul Cézanne (the Jonathan Pryce-like Guillaume Gallienne) were schoolboy pals in Aix en Provence. Zola was the poor half-Jewish son of an Italian laborer. Cézanne was the son of a snobbish banker. The way it's told here, Cézanne protected Zola from bullies in the schoolyard, and thus began a long, sometimes lopsided friendship.

Cézanne had no fear of women. Zola was tended by his mom and plagued with impotence. Cross-pollination and mutual fandom began their friendship. They gave each other mutual support, in the days when Cézanne couldn't even get accepted at the Salon de Refuses, and Zola was so poor he was eating sparrows caught on the street.

Cézanne is depicted as an impossible man, not quite housebroken, moaning about Ingres and picking fights. Zola becomes bourgeoise, stultified with wealth from his successes Nana and Germinal. Then comes the major quarrel between them: Cézanne believed that Zola's novel L'Oeuvre was a travesty of Cézanne's life, and a ransacking of their mutual past.

From a cinematic standpoint, it's easier to visualize what Cézanne did than to dramatize a man sitting in a room scribbling. The director Daniéle Thompson keeps us on Cézanne's side as an injured party, ratted out by a friend. She makes us fear for his canvasses as artifacts, cut up by bourgeois louts, left to sit outside by a door, or flung out of a window, to be poked out of a tree with sticks like a broken kite. Cézanne never nearly had the success Zola did in life. But here he has the real triumph: shots of the painter's favorite subject, Mont Sainte-Victoire and the red dirt and ravines around it still look like the world-famous paintings.

The historical back and forth wears out this film. Thompson (Queen Margot, The 'Mad' Adventures of Rabbi Jacob) can't quite differentiate the characters in the background, blurring the women in the two men's lives. At best, she grasps the sense of those periods in life when failure has you captive and friends cannot be tolerated. At worst, the film is like a prestigious form of Neil Simon self-seriousness.

Cézanne et Moi
R; 1hr, 54 min.
Opens Friday at Camera 3

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