Cézanne et Moi
Though Cézanne et Moi is a sprawling biographical tale covering the stormy love/hate relationship between lifelong friends Émile Zola and Paul Cézanne, the most appealing thing about it is not its storyline but its aesthetic output. Danièle Thompson, who wrote and directed the movie, painstakingly brings the paintings of the underappreciated Cézanne to life, with even the most mundane of moments thriving in their color and composition. Every frame looks like a painting.
But Thompson’s attentiveness toward cinematographic detail can only get Cézanne et Moi so far before it becomes abundantly clear that the filmmaker is a better visual storyteller than she is a screenwriter.
Thompson, who’s been active in the film industry since 1966, has made successful films before. The peppy Jet Lag (2002) and the frothy Avenue Montaigne (2006) embody her knack for concocting likable, humorous larks easy to lose oneself in.
Cézanne et Moi, however, shows the director out of her element. She’s a filmmaker at her best when the touch is light and the stakes are nonexistent. But here, the approach is heavy-handed and overly ambitious, and her uneasiness is evident. Think Woody Allen trying to direct a three-hour romantic epic.
Spanning decades, the film revolves around the relationship between Zola (Guillaume Canet) and Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne), who first meet as children in the schoolyard. The twosome, of course, go on to stand among some of the great artists of the 19th century, Zola with the writers and Cézanne with the painters.
But focused on are the professional and romantic rivalries which tormented their relationship throughout the years. Thompson never shies away from the agonies which continuously befell Cézanne as an effect of his never achieving the same level of success as Zola.
Because Cézanne et Moi is so gargantuan in its scope and its aspirations, though, it’s impossible to latch onto it. We can admire it to a fault, but the storyline never reaches the same brilliance of its optic pleasures. Thompson is so skimpy on background (or, at least, the early days of the focal duo’s friendship) that we never exactly understand why Cézanne and Zola were drawn to one another in the first place.
We predominantly see them as adults bickering and shouting, moments of tenderness seldom and exemplifications of their initial connection vague. The professional high points the twosome experienced during their lives are completely ignored, too. And since Cézanne et Moi clocks at two hours, tedium eventually overtakes the scenery. A couple of passionate monologues delivered by Canet and Gallienne toward the film’s finale do, however, manage to move us.
Take away Canet and Gallienne’s ardent performances and Thompson’s visual mastery and there’s little reason to watch this rambling and pretentious exploration of male friendship. While watching, I was reminded of 2011’s Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, a similarly structured French biopic which mistakenly assumed that we knew enough background information about the central figure to allow for the talents behind the camera to artistically indulge themselves. That didn’t work in 2011 and it doesn’t work now. Cézanne et Moi is dressed to kill but underwhelms dramatically. Given its potential, that’s a travesty. C
1 Hr., 57 Mins.
May 4, 2017
This review also appeared in The Daily.