The nineteenth-century bromance between novelist Emile Zola and painter Paul Cezanne, which began in boyhood and continued almost to the end of their lives—though not without bumps in the road, most notably a book that the artist considered a cruel depiction of him—is the subject of Daniele Thompson’s elegant but episodic and rather banal period drama. “Cezanne and I” is handsome to look at and sporadically engaging, but overall it comes across as repetitive and only superficially enlightening.
Though constructed fairly chronologically from the moment that Cezanne and Zola met as schoolboys and frolicked in the woods near Aix-en-Provence in the 1850s, to the final years of their lives (after Zola had become involved in the Dreyfus affair and Cezanne began to win a small measure of recognition for the post-impressionist style that would have such a huge impact), the script returns repeatedly to a visit the artist made to the novelist after the publication of “L’oeuvre” in 1886—the work that Cezanne considered a thinly-veiled, and not at all complimentary, portrayal of him. During that stay, in Thompson’s imagination at least, the two men recall episodes from their years of friendship, but Cezanne also accuses Zola of disloyalty—and of selling out artistically, something he insists he would never do.
What for the most part emerges from Thompson’s take on the relationship is that Cezanne was a genius, but an exceptionally difficult one—a man who desired recognition but whose volatile personality continuously antagonized the elites that withheld it from him. Zola, on the other hand, is the steadfast, supportive friend who recognizes Cezanne’s exceptional talent and tries to encourage it, but who is also aware of his friend’s faults. (One of the clichés in which the script indulges—more than once—is that Cezanne overhears Zola making some critical comments about him, which of course he very much considers a betrayal.)
There is the kernel of an intriguing dramatization of clashing mid-nineteenth-century aesthetics here, but “Cezanne and I” is content to be little more than an artsy “Odd Couple” in period dress. The performances are of little help, with Guillaume Gallienne bringing volatility but not much else to Cezanne—the artist’s supposed charisma never blooms in this case—and Guillaume Canet curiously sleepy as Zola. (The two are played as boys by Hugo Fernandez and Lucien Belves, who frankly seem more animated than their adult counterparts.) One of the most characteristic, and irritating, tics of Thompson’s languid approach is to introduce virtually every meeting between the two men with the actors stopping in their tracks and offering a gentle reciprocal smile before they hug.
The people around the two men never come into very sharp focus in this treatment. Zola’s concern for his impoverished mother Emilie (Isabelle Candelier) and Cezanne’s estrangement from his well-heeled ones (Sabine Azema and Gerard Meylan) are sketched rather than felt, and the women in their lives (Cezanne is portrayed as a philanderer, and Zola as a man who dumps his wife for a much younger woman who’s been their maid)—Alexandrine Zola (Alice Pol), the maid Jeanne (Freya Mavor), and model/wife Hortense Cezanne (Deborah Francois)—aren’t very vividly portrayed. There is some modest amusement in walk-ons by some artistic notables in the Paris scenes; Guy de Maupassant (Felicien Juttner), Camille Pissarro (Romain Cottard), Auguste Renoir (Alexandre Kouchner), Edouard Manet (Nicolas Gob) and Frederic Bazille (Patrice Tepasso) are among them.
But the film doesn’t really explicate the artistic currents of the time as much as presuppose knowledge of them; Cezanne’s persistent rejection by the French Academy (as well as the public) is presented as disapproval of him as a person rather than of his admittedly challenging paintings. It’s not until the closing credits, in fact, that we’re given the opportunity to appreciate one of Cezanne’s works in its full glory—and to see how groundbreaking his style actually was.
Thompson obviously immersed herself in the details of Cezanne and Zola’s lives, and she secured impressive work from her technical team: Michele Abbe’s production design, Catherine Leterrier’s costumes and Jean-Marie Dreujou’s cinematography (vacillating between luxurious static compositions and more hectic hand-held moments) are unfailingly elegant. But the chronologically fractured way in which she has chosen to structure the story hobbles the efforts of editor Sylvie Landra as well as her lead actors, and Eric Neveux’s score is frequently overbearing.
“Cezanne and I” would have benefited from some of the sense of provocation one finds in the artist’s work. Instead it opts for a largely conventional approach that resembles that of Cezanne’s critics, and comes across as pretty but rather dull.