What appears to be one of the greatest bromances in cultural history has finally been brought to the screen in Cezanne and I (Cezanne et moi), writer-director Daniele Thompson’s flowery, fictionalized account of the affectionate if caustic friendship between the titular French painter and his lifelong bestie, the writer Emile Zola.
Starring Guillaume Gallienne (Me, Myself and Mum) as Cezanne and Guillaume Canet (Tell No One) as Zola — both Guillaumes decked out in constantly evolving facial hair that merits its own above-the-line credit — this easily digestible though very kitschy tale of creation and destitution, prosperity and rivalry gets points for taking such liberties with two 19th century masters, who come to life here in some surprising ways. But Thompson’s heavy-handed storytelling, along with a nonstop score of pure mush, brings this closer to telenovela territory than to the Louvre, making for a fanciful period piece that could run up modest numbers both at home and abroad.
Doesn’t leave much of a (post) impression.
Set between the year 1888, when a nearly 50-year-old Cezanne confronts Zola about his novel L’Oeuvre (whose main character — an ambitious but failed painter — struck way too close to home for the artist), and a slew of flashbacks recalling how the pair became school pals in Aix-en-Provence and grew up to share a mutual love of art and beautiful women, Thompson’s script keeps the action moving along while pinpointing the differences between the two stubborn creators: Zola, who was fatherless and poor, dreamed of becoming a writer and eventually joined the very bourgeoisie he seemed to mock in his youth; while Cezanne, who grew up rich but with major daddy issues, wound up rejecting society to focus entirely on his work, which was only recognized at the very end of his life (he had his first solo exhibition in 1895).
For fans of art history there are definitely a few tidbits to chew on, with painters Edouard Manet (Nicolas Gob), Auguste Renoir (Alexandre Kouchner) and Camille Pissaro (Romain Cottard) — a group that the increasingly prickly Cezanne was close to at the start of his career — all making cameos, appearing in scenes that attempt to recreate famous paintings like Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Les Grandes Baigneuses, replete with bottles of wine, white sheets and frolicking French girls in the nude. Another sequence, set at one of the controversial Salon des Refusés art shows of the 1860s, turns into an all-out brawl that resembles an Impressionist Wrestlemania.
Thompson (Avenue Montaigne) — who in the press notes claims she did so much research that “Cezanne and Zola became like family” for her — has no problem fantasizing how her heroes both loved and loathed each other, in a decades-long friendly feud where they fell for the same woman, Alexandrine (Alice Pol), who would become Zola’s wife, while intimately discussing their personal lives. At one point, Cezanne sums up his marital woes with wife/muse Hortense (Deborah Francois) with the line: “I f— her too quickly and paint her too slowly.” Is that a direct quote?
Much of this can come across as maudlin, with Canet and Gallienne shifting between quiet moments of contemplation — though the quietness is ruined by Eric Neveux’s overbearing music — and dramatic screaming matches that are almost embarrassing to watch. The underlying artistic argument, pitting Zola’s socially charged writing against Cezanne’s coldly formalistic painting, is not an uninteresting one, especially when the hindsight of history shows how the latter’s work paved the way for modernism, while the former’s naturalism remained more or less stuck in the 1800s. But those aesthetic bouts are too often buried under Thompson’s eye-rolling dialogue and obvious direction, not to mention the piles of dirty laundry getting aired out at all times. (Cezanne, especially, seems obsessed with sex and his inability to get it up.)
Shot partially on location in the south of France, the sweeping cinematography of Jean-Marie Dreujou (Wolf Totem) captures many of the landscapes that would be memorialized by Cezanne’s canvases, especially the different views he produced of the Montagne Saint-Victoire in his beloved Provence. Other tech contributions are extremely polished in a film that does a good job painting a broad picture of two major figures in art and literature but fails to depict them with any credible detail.
Production companies: G Films, Pathe, Orange Studio, France 2 Cinema, Umedia, Alter Films
Cast: Guillaume Canet, Guillaume Gallienne, Alice Pol, Deborah Francois, Sabinz Azema
Director-screenwriter: Daniele Thompson
Producer: Albert Koski
Director of photography: Jean-Marie Dreujou
Production designer: Michele Abbe
Costume designer: Catherine Leterrier
Editor: Sylvie Landra
Composer: Eric Neveux
Casting director: Pierre-Jacques Benichou
Not rated, 116 minutes