Their Brilliant Careers: Thompson’s Flavorless Exploration of Famed Friendship
Those hoping for an invigorating comeback from Daniele Thompson following her egregiously ludicrous It Happened in St. Tropez (2013) might be disappointed in the French writer/director’s latest effort, Cezanne et Moi, a reenactment of the tumultuous friendship of writer Emile Zola and painter and Paul Cezanne in 19th century France. Although both subjects are intrinsically intriguing, and an intimate study of their lifelong relationship would seem perfectly justifiable for a film treatment, Thompson’s furious volleys between time periods and various banalities ends up a monotonously textured, emotionally toneless endeavor. While it’s interesting to see Thompson break out into new territory, seeing as her previous five features (including her beloved Cesar nominated Avenue Montaigne, 2006) were all romantically inclined comedies, her portrait of two of France’s artistic treasures is so ceaselessly serious and superficial this pretentious venture begins to feel like watching paint dry.
Befriending each other as children in Aix-en-Provence, writer Emile Zola (Guillaume Canet) and painter Paul Cezanne (Guillaume Galliene) would spend their formative years developing their interests and inspirations together while pursuing separate modes of artistic expression. Cezanne’s tumultuous relationship with his father became detrimental regarding the young man’s own faith in his talents as a painter, and in turn, this relationship contributed to his surly approach to critics. But Zola quickly came to prominence as a controversial and successful writer in his critique of imbalanced class systems. Supported by his father’s allowance, Cezanne rejected the current Parisian scene to focus on his impressionistic style, which led to his rejection from and ostracizing by his peers. Meanwhile, Zola would marry Cezanne’s former lover (Alice Pol) and success would find him emulating the bourgeoisie society he initially mocked.
Of course, this isn’t the first cinematic representation of either artist, although this is the most significant version to examine Zola and Cezanne since the Best Picture winning 1937 film The Life of Emile Zola directed by William Dieterle and starring Paul Muni as the writer and Vladimir Sokoloff as the painter (albeit in limited capacity). And if Roman Polanski ever gets his project concerning the Dreyfuss Affair off the ground, we can eventually add another portrait of comparison (the political scandal is itself briefly mentioned at the tail end of Thompson’s frenemy portrait). High profile biopics of France’s artists are certainly nothing new, and Thompson’s film will most likely be compared to Pialat’s Van Gogh (1991) or Bourdos’ Renoir (2012). Purposefully, DP Jean-Marie Dreujou (Leconte’s The Girl on the Bridge and Man on the Train) avoids crafting the film as a painterly homage to Cezanne, instead focusing on delivering pronouncedly different lighting, textures, and frames for each of the three distinct periods and locales the narrative is constantly flitting in and out of.
And while stylistic choices are defendable, the jealous rivalry between Zola and Cezanne never captivates, and certainly does not to justify a running time of two hours. Their relationships with their wives (and in the case of Alice Pol as Zola’s wife, who was first Cezanne’s lover, this extremely dysfunctional scenario seems to be presented always at arm’s length, perhaps so as not to let this sole lurid detail conquer the fragile friendship between two men) is also blandly administered, while the requisite age progression of the performers is always distracting.
Try as he may, Guillaume Canet, in his many sequences as an aged Zola, looks to be a man playing dress-up, more like a Freud Halloween costume (anything below the neck seems to have eluded the make-up department). By comparison, Guilluame Galliene (who appeared in Thompson’s Avenue Montaigne) has the juicer role, mostly thanks to Cezanne’s apparently crippling self-esteem and flagrant promiscuousness. The actor’s wizardly appearance as the artist in his elder years is also a better visual attribute, although several sequences calling on Galliene to exhibit tearful remonstrances ring false. However, so intensely focused are we on both men’s private lives, Thompson completely neglects to assert their artistic influences (particularly with Zola, whose infamous novels, such as L’ouevre and Nana, which are merely peripheral, free floating references).
Supporting cast members are mostly pale shadows, including a rather wasted Sabine Azema as Zola’s placating mother. Alice Pol, allowed to step out of her ingénue mold, is moderately successful at portraying the complicated go-between and eventual fissure between both men. Deborah Francois (of the Dardennes’ L’enfant and The Page Turner from Denis Dercourt) gets a bit more texture as Cezanne’s vapid muse turned unsatisfied wife, but both are strangely eclipsed by the mysterious but beautiful maid played by Freya Mavor (of the 2015 remake The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun, who recalls a young Isabelle Adjani), a sex fantasy object for Zola.
Fussy for naught, Cezanne et Moi (which was shortlisted as France’s contender for Best Foreign Language last year, alongside new films from Ozon, Verhoeven, and Anne Fontaine) plays like a doggedly researched biopic from a director perhaps too enamored with the subjects to properly capture their essence (disappointingly, much like the presentation of Zola, this is a far cry from the controversial screenplays Thompson was initially known for, like 1974’s Cousin Cousine and 1994’s Queen Margot). Surely, this type of fanfare is custom made for a certain audience, but ultimately this is too overly mannered to be more than a handsomely filmed, overly romanticized engagement with a particular period. In short, this is simply A Tale of Two Guillaumes.