The story of the troubled artist is nothing new. Vincent Van Gogh cut his own ear off, after all, and Edgar Allen Poe died destitute in the streets of Baltimore. Paul Cézanne was no exception to the trope. Cézanne et Moi, directed by Danièle Thompson, paints a searing, although sometimes disappointing portrait of the friendship between the eponymous artist and writer Emile Zola, which lasted for much of their lives but ultimately ended in heartbreak.
Cézanne et Moi uses the conversation that definitively ends Cezanne and Zola’s friendship as a backbone for the narrative structure of the film. In some ways, I was reminded of the musical Merrily We Roll Along while watching this film. Both pieces play a similar narrative game that starts with the dissolution of a friendship and works backwards. Merrily We Roll Along progressively rewinds back to the very beginning, to the moment the three main characters meet. Instead of rewinding, the film intercuts this crucial conversation between flashbacks to their initial meeting and progressive flash-forwards, until the narrative catches up to said conversation and eventually moves past it. This construction mostly works, although it does have the effect of occasionally choppy pacing as we jump across large periods of time in their lives.
When done right, heartbreak hurts to watch, and this film can be gut-wrenching. The convincing portrait of a tenuous and ill-fated friendship is the film’s true strength. The pain shared by Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne) and Zola (Guillaume Canet) is palpable. In the first scene of the movie, Cézanne and Zola see each other for the first time in two years (although the audience doesn’t know the context) and immediately Gallienne and Canet reveal, in the hesitation on their faces, the tension radiating from their eyes, and their stiff body movements, the extensive and painful history between the two men. That moment best encapsulates the tension that this film revolves around: that of a friendship between two people so constantly threatened by each other that the only way of escape guarantees mutually assured destruction.
A lovely moment of circularity reveals itself at the end of the film. Cézanne brings a woman named Alexandrine (although she goes by Gabrielle) to the bar to meet his friends, and Zola falls in love with her nearly the minute he sees her. After a falling out over her, Cézanne quietly delivers a line that will come to haunt both of them: “In love, you forgive betrayal. With friendship, it’s harder.” Flash forward some thirty-or-so years and a perceived betrayal of a different kind ultimately ends their friendship. Again, Zola is cast in the role of the betrayer and Cézanne in the role of the betrayed, but the film also highlights Cézanne’s tendency to be overly sensitive, though he’ll never openly admit it. The situation cannot be read as an instance of miscommunication, but instead as an instance of willful misunderstanding, one that ultimately comes down on Cézanne’s shoulders alone. There’s a reason this film is titled Cézanne et Moi and not Zola et Moi or Cézanne et Zola. Cézanne plays the role of the catalyst in everything.
Cézanne was an impossible man to get along with. The two people who loved him most, Zola and Hortense (the woman with whom he would have a child and eventually marry) barely knew him and often barely liked him. Although Cézanne’s general unfriendliness shines through clearly, Thompson fails to critically look at Cézanne’s blatant misogyny and disregard for the people around him. He strings his mistress along for years before he eventually marries her. According to this film, he was an alcoholic and possibly an abusive one, but the film treats that as a footnote and nothing more. By only examining the relationship between Zola and Cézanne, the picture drawn of the two men unsatisfactorily glosses over their glaring personality flaws. Both men slept around with impunity, and while there could have been an interesting social critique of two of the most influential French figures of the nineteenth century, the troublesome aspects of both men go largely unexamined.
At times in the film, the plot is propelled by overly-convenient perchance situations. Zola frequently just happens to overhear Cézanne saying something about him, or vice versa. Besides being probably unfactual (although this film is a biopic and not a documentary, so some wiggle room can be allowed on that front), those interactions cheapen the legitimate drama in the story of these two men. Using the plot mechanism of the overheard conversation isn’t just lazy—such moments actively jolted me out of the world of the film because they felt so untrue.
The final scene strikes a false note with its delivery. Cézanne and Zola no longer talk. The friendship they once had no longer exists—Cézanne made sure of that. Nevertheless, there is no one in the world who Cézanne loves more than Zola, or at least that is what the film wants us to believe. Their fraught relationship was always going to veer into tragedy, and so it does. But fast-forward past the fateful conversation around which the film revolves to 1899, when Zola arrives in Aix-en-Provence—the hometown of both men—where Cézanne still lives in near reclusion. For a moment, we think that this is it: the moment of reconciliation. Instead, we get another cheap eavesdropping situation where Cézanne hears Zola trash-talking him to the mayor and decides not to contact him after all. This moment almost certainly never happened, as there is no record of any contact between the two men after 1888. The film ends with Cézanne walking through the hills in despair, after which title cards informing viewers what happens to the two men materialize on top of a landscape that transforms from the actual scenery into the paintings that Cézanne made of the landscape. The whole thing feels overwrought and too neatly wrapped up. The movie takes us through nearly their entire lives; by the time it concludes, Cézanne and Zola don’t have much left to do before they die, and so the conclusion title cards feel even more unnecessary and silly than the end-credits-explanation trope usually does. The film would have been better served by an ending that embraced its own lack of resolution, since the real relationship between the two men ended in just that way.
Every landscape shot in this film is rendered beautifully. It may be a common standard that movies about artists have to have good cinematography and art direction, but Cézanne et Moi does not disappoint in that respect. Numerous scenes give us views worthy of Cézanne’s paintings themselves, which is certainly part of the point, since we so often see him painting in those very landscapes we are supposed to admire. The film feels much like a painting in that way. On the other hand, the smaller, more personal moments are a bit jarring in their cinematographic style because many of those shots are hand-held and shaky, but it’s a fitting contrast to the stable, picturesque panoramas of the French countryside. The conflict between shots reflects the conflict between Cézanne’s messy and small personal life and the great works that he created.
Despite the problems of Cézanne et Moi, the film paints a compelling portrait of two interesting and complicated figures. By the nature of their personalities, Zola always comes off as the smaller presence in the room even though he finds more success artistically in his lifetime than Cézanne does. This film makes a case for the necessity of recognizing the value in other people. Great passion without humanity only ends in tragedy. Maybe that’s art, but is it worth it? This film tries to, but ultimately cannot answer that for us.