“Cezanne et Moi” is the story of the lifelong friendship between Paul Cezanne and Emile Zola, and nothing about it was easy.
Zola enjoyed fairly early success as a novelist, but not until he’d spent long years almost freezing and starving to death. And Cezanne, though he had the benefit of family money for most of his life, never quite achieved the success and acknowledgment that he craved and deserved — at least not while he was breathing.
The movie begins with Cezanne paying Zola a visit in the late 1880s, when both men were almost 50. From there, we see how the two met in school, with Cezanne rescuing Zola from a schoolyard beating. This incident shows Cezanne at his best, as fearless, spontaneous and elemental. His worst is just as dramatic. He’s vulgar, nasty, crude and resentful, with an air of violence about him. And he’s an awful dinner party guest, the kind of frustrating person who sees friendliness as dishonesty and politeness as self-betrayal.
His friendship with Zola is consistently difficult, partly because all of Cezanne’s human contacts are difficult, but also because Cezanne, despite his harshness and bluster, really cares what Zola thinks of him. Zola, by contrast, has the quiet self-possession to write off Cezanne as nuts whenever he offers criticism that Zola doesn’t want to hear.
So “Cezanne et Moi” presents an arresting dynamic: Two great artists in different fields, who know each other inside out, and who value each other as indispensable, and yet they clash every time they’re together. Throughout, Cezanne constantly threatens the friendship and Zola consistently reaffirms it, but a sense comes through in Guillaume Gallienne’s performance that Cezanne is the needier of the two, that he needs Zola more than Zola needs him.
The film benefits from standout performances from both Gallienne and Guillaume Canet, who plays Zola, but ultimately it’s Gallienne who astonishes. He brings a subtly different physicality to Cezanne at the various stages of his life, so that there’s not only a difference between 20 and 60, but 40 and 50. He also shows a gradual darkening of Cezanne’s spirit, as the boisterous high spirits of youth pickle into the loutishness and meanness of middle age.
Cezanne was a hard man to be friends with, and watching him over the course of “Cezanne et Moi” sometimes gets tiresome. It becomes monotonous watching a man make the same mistakes over and over, protecting himself when he needn’t, lashing out when he shouldn’t. But the artist’s life as presented here is interesting, and you have to admire someone who can work with the same intensity, over the course of decades, in the face of indifference and rejection.
For lovers of late 19th century French art, “Cezanne et Moi” has an irresistible backdrop, with appearances by Pissarro, Manet and Renoir, as well as by art dealer Ambroise Vollard. In one scene, a brawl breaks out in front of Manet’s “Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe” during its first public exhibition. And throughout the film, there are countryside vistas that evoke the paintings of that era.
(At the Tivoli.)
‘Cezanne et Moi’
Rated R for language, sexual references and nudity.
In French with subtitles.