Cezanne & Zola, a bromance

  • by Erin Blackwell
  • Wednesday April 12, 2017
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The idea we have of the artist's life was fabricated in France at the end of the 19th century. It's a very pretty idea filled with alienation and bottles of red wine, gooey cheese and integrity, naked women lolling on bedsheets, existential crises, and of course, intense hatred of all things bourgeois. If you'd like to watch a two-hour-long cinematic version of this life complete with costumes as featured in now-famous paintings, you're in luck. A new French film called Cezanne and Me opens tomorrow at Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Shattuck in Berkeley.

It's not easy to make a biopic, or biographical film. Most of them are awful because an assemblage of key moments of a famous person's long and eventful life has no inherent dramatic focus. Details and digressions dampen dynamic. The essence or spirit of a personality gets lost in the dutiful shuffle of events. If you want to see a marvelous evocation of art-making that does justice to la vie boheme, watch Moulin Rouge (1953), director John Huston's hommage to Toulouse-Lautrec. Alas, Paul Cezanne and his friend Emile Zola, the titular "Me," are not so well-served by director Daniele Thompson.

Cezanne and Zola are shown at various stages of their painterly and literary careers, respectively. They meet as scuffling schoolboys. They pursue their lone-wolf, iconoclastic careers in Paris, until Cezanne retreats to Aix to stare at rocks and trees. Their mutual admiration and support fray as Zola becomes the voice of his time, while Cezanne keeps busting up canvases that don't satisfy his idea of perfection, and he grows pitiful in his impoverished pretentions. Their parallel evolutions are told as flashbacks leading up to an inevitable rift, triggered by Zola's novel skewering his friend, L'Oeuvre (The Masterpiece) .

This backwards-and-forwards scuttling is only one symptom of Thompson's failure to dominate her fascinating material. There are edits that don't entirely make sense, and there are changes in tone that seem desperate attempts at entertainment in lieu of coherent style. Iconic images by French Impressionists come to life at random moments in sudden, distracting tableaux vivants that mock the earnest onscreen pronouncements of these two modern masters. Kitsch spontaneously erupts to undermine the revolutionary project to replace commonplace bourgeois niceties with something more real .

Yesterday's revolution is today's placemat or calendar image. Cezanne and Zola's shared mission to create new forms of art and literature has been transformed, by cruel irony, into a period-piece bromance. All the cliches are fleshed out to the point of absurdity, so that a few deft nudges could've transformed this into a very funny film. There's no trace of genius here, only posturing, but be grateful for small mercies, there are at least no sex scenes, only evidence of a complete disregard for the subjectivity of the women who serve their men body and soul. That aspect alone is overdue for parody.

The two leads are both named Guillaume, which is French for William. Canet makes Zola very small, thanks to his look of perpetual smugness and his inability to personify quickness of thought or curiosity, those hallmarks of the writer. Gallienne is better as C├ęzanne, which is to say he moves around more and throws fits, and has large eyes. Neither of them is terribly convincing, chiefly because the scenes they're given to play are mere illustrations of anecdotes that never rise to the level of dramatic necessity. Judging by this film, the revolution is over, the artistic spirit is dead, all we have left are fragments of a bygone consciousness we can now no longer access.