Mark Reviews Movies

Cezanne et Moi


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Danièle Thompson

Cast: Guillaume Canet, Guillaume Gallienne, Alice Pol, Déborah François, Pierre Yvon, Sabine Azéma, Gérard Meylan, Laurent Stocker, Isabelle Candelier, Freya Mavor

MPAA Rating: R (for language, sexual references and nudity)

Running Time: 1:57

Release Date: 4/7/17 (limited); 4/14/17 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 13, 2017

This story of the turbulent bond between two geniuses of their time cares far too much about the turbulence and not nearly enough about the genius. Even with that concentration, Cezanne et Moi still falls short as a melodrama. It's barely a soap opera, despite the story's various romantic entanglements and big displays of emotion. That failure at least shows that writer/director Danièle Thompson has concerns that go deeper than the surface level on her mind. Whatever those concerns may be, they aren't on the screen.

The central semi-friendship is between the writer—and, later, political activist—Emile Zola (Guillaume Canet) and the artist Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne). It never feels like an actual friendship, partly because Thompson takes so many shortcuts to develop it and partly because she begins the story with it already shattered beyond repair.

The shortcuts are scenes of the later creators as kids, living an ideal childhood in Aix-en-Provence, France. One saves the other from a schoolyard bully, and the two become fast friends. They travel to the countryside, take in the sights, and swim in a lake. As the pair gets older, they wander the streets, take in the sights of passing women, and dream of a bigger life. Cézanne's father (Gérard Meylan) doesn't much care for the young Zola, whose family comes from a lower class than his own clan, but Cézanne sticks with him.

This is about the extent of their bond, because as older men at Zola's estate home, Cézanne has arrived to tell off the author for his unflattering portrait of an artist in Zola's novel L'œuvre. The painter is especially angry that so many details of the fictional artist's life resemble his own.

The time in between their youth in a small town and their final confrontation in a country estate is filled with much to-do. There's the professional jealousy. There's the romantic jealousy. There is Zola's recognition as a genius by his contemporaries, and there is Cézanne's continuous failure to make a dent in an art world filled with people like Edouard Manet, Auguste Renior, and Claude Monet. There's a scene at a Parisian tavern where Zola and Cézanne have drinks with some of their contemporaries, but the point of the scene isn't for a meeting of minds. It's to show that Cézanne is a petty, envious man.

That's the extent of his character, mixed with a few scenes of his ill temper, especially when it comes to his art. Cézanne, who lives off an allowance from his father, doesn't take rejection well, although he's defensive about his shortcomings. If a gallery or the French Academy doesn't want him, well, he didn't want their acceptance in the first place. Cézanne is a misanthrope who complains that human models should act more like apples, so that he can better paint them.

He's the kind of man who will nearly finish a portrait of his friend, only to kick a hole in the canvas. When one of his models/lovers requests a completed portrait of her, he dumps black paint over the painting. That particular model later becomes Zola's wife, who tries to escape her past by renaming herself Alexandrine (Alice Pol).

If there's a character behind Zola, Thompson doesn't reveal it. He exists to be a springboard for Cézanne's shifting moods and a calming agent for the artist's hot temper. There's a little about his insecurity with women, in contrast to his friend's ease in bedding multiple women. In his later years, he pines for a young housemaid (played by Freya Mavor), while regretting his inability to have a family with his wife.

One will notice that, apart from the novel that drives a wedge between them, the two men's work has not been discussed. There isn't much in the movie, either, besides passing mentions of Zola's grand plans for novels and glimpses of some of Cézanne's paintings. It's akin to namedropping—hollow and only satisfying for the person doing it. The real dearth comes from the lack of any meaningful conversation about inspiration or technique. Any talk of the former has to do with Cézanne's anger about the artist character and Zola's insistence that he has taken the character from multiple people he has known (The big reveal is that the character of the doubtful, struggling artist is based primarily—prepare for a sympathetic "Aw"—on himself). The notion of any technique begins and ends with the understanding that both men are great artists.

Cezanne et Moi clearly aspires to be a character study of two artists and their responses to success or the lack thereof. It falls significantly short of that, and as a melodrama about the tragedy of lost friendship, the movie simply never convinces us that these two men were, are, or ever should have been friends in the first place.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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