In the final confrontation of their troubled relationship, acclaimed novelist Émile Zola looks away from his lifelong friend, Post-Impressionist giant Paul Cézanne, and listlessly announces, “I can’t remember why I loved you so much.”
Viewers of “Cézanne and I,” showing this weekend at Speed Cinema, will find themselves in much the same predicament, given that writer/director Danièle Thompson never illustrates the bond between the two artists in any emotionally resonate way.
The lavishly filmed historical drama tracks the deeply entwined lives of Zola and Cézanne – played competently by Guillaume Canet and Guillaume Gallienne – from their childhood as classmates in Aix-en-Provence, France, via what seems to be about a dozen interlaced time-window sequences mapped out with no particularly interesting rhythm.
Mounting tension in the relationship takes center stage in each sequence, as Cezanne’s resentment over his own anonymity ferments while Zola’s acclaim and personal fortunes grow. Unfortunately, Thompson’s script relentlessly focuses on Cézanne’s volatile obsession. We’re treated to all the tortured artist tropes – a barroom diatribe about the moral bankruptcy of art-for-hire; a manically overthrown dinner party; and a neglected model/wife who tearfully rages: “Go f— your painting. Wallow in your stinking art!”
Gallienne as Cézanne never gets the chance to illustrate why anyone would ever choose to put up with this guy in the first place. Moments of genuine grace and charisma are few and far between, mostly sequestered to a montage of buddy moments. Thompson simply takes for granted that Cézanne’s artistic genius and passion is enough to draw others into his personal tumult. This reviewer was reminded of Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” (1991), which left surviving band members protesting that Jim Morrison wasn’t a crazy a-hole all the time.
Canet has more to work with as the reserved Zola, whose own misgivings about the merits of his work later in life add to the mounting friction between himself and Cézanne. The whole mess culminates in a blowup over the struggling artist central to Zola’s L’œuvre, which Cézanne takes as a dig at himself but which (at least in the movie) Zola views as being equally autobiographical.
The best performance in the film belongs to Alice Pol as Zola’s wife, Alexandrine, who was first romantically involved with Zola in their boisterous days of Parisian youth. Pol deftly manages her character’s aging through the time shifts with physical nuisance over makeup, and her outright personal contempt for Cézanne as the story progresses is the most emotionally true thread in the movie. Her smackdown over bad manners and beef stew is almost worth the price of admission.
The real star is Jean-Marie Dreujou’s lavish cinematography, particularly the loving treatment of the French countryside of Aix-en-Provence, where Cézanne retreats when things just get to be too much – which is all time.
“Cézanne and I” shows four times this weekend at the Speed: Friday, March 26 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, May 27 at 3 at 7 p.m.; and Sunday, May 28, 3 p.m. In French, with English subtitles.
For those interested in stories of artists and their turbulent relationships with those around them, Dean Otto, film curator at the Speed, offers these recommendations:
1996; Directed by Julian Schnabel
Fascinating in light of last week’s record-breaking sale of $110.5 million for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s painting “Untitled,” fellow painter and friend Julian Schnabel directed this feature film about Basquiat’s relationship with artists in the Downtown New York scene of the late 70s / early 80s.
‘Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon’
1998; Directed by John Maybury
Bordering on experimental and shot in the style of Francis Bacon’s paintings, director John Maybury crafted a gripping tale of the painter and his rough-trade muse (played by the young Daniel Craig).
‘Vincent & Theo’
1990; Directed by Robert Altman
Robert Altman directed this tale of the strained, but loving, relationship between the troubled painter Vincent Van Gogh (Tim Roth) and his brother who served as his dealer (Paul Rhys).