As much as I love French cinema, French art and France, I cannot recommend the 2016 movie about two of its most celebrated citizens: “Cézanne et moi.” Cézanne, of course, refers to the Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne. In the movie, he is seen through the eyes of one of his oldest friends, novelist and journalist Émile Zola.
Born in Paris in 1840, Zola’s father was Italian but his mother was French. When Zola was about 4, the family moved to Aix-en-Provence, where Cézanne was born and raised. Zola’s father was an engineer behind the Zola Dam in Aix-en-Provence, but he died in 1847, leaving his widow with a small pension.
The movie begins in Aix-en-Provence, where we meet two old men who have been apart for about two years. We soon learn how they met as we flash back in time to 1860 where Cézanne (Hugo Fernandez as the young Cézanne) rescues Zola (Lucien Belves as a young Zola) from a group of bullies. (The significance of that year won’t be lost of American history buffs and gives us an idea of the times: The USA in 1860 elected Abraham Lincoln president and by the next year would begin its Civil War.) Zola’s father has already died; he and his mother are poor. Cézanne is a rebellious young man from a rich family. The two forge a friendship despite their economic differences. Zola returns to Paris and Cézanne follows. There Zola (Guillaume Canet) eventually finds success, but Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne) is rejected from the art scene, but finds a place among other artists–all of whom I like better–Auguste Renoir (Alexandre Kouchner), Éduoard Manet (Nicolas Gob) and Camille Pissarro (Romain Cottard). Writer Guy de Maupassant (Felicien Juttner) also makes an appearance.
In the movie, romantic entanglements are almost as important as the pair’s artistic output. Zola’s wife Alexandrine (Alice Pol) was once a prostitute called Gabrielle who dallied first with Cézanne. Later, Alexandrine must deal with a very public affair between her husband and her servant, Jeanne (Freya Mavor), but we don’t see her anger and anguish. This is, after all, the viewpoint of Zola. While a certain segment of the French population might accept that Zola betrays Alexandrine as nothing extraordinary, he also betrays his friendship with the Cézanne by writing the 1886 novel, “L’Œuvre” (The Masterpiece).
Written and directed by Daniele Thompson (“Cousin, cousine”) the movie, “Cézanne et moi,” drifts into indulgent reveries, sometimes lost in the beauty of French countryside (cinematography by Jean-Mari Dreujou) or the bare breasts of the women. The dialogue is neither witty nor enlightening. Perhaps it would mean more if one was critically interested in either of these two men. Thompson has imagined their romantic entanglements, their wives and their mistresses. Men jump into the brilliant blue waters of a still lake or pond. Women splash each other in the shallow waters during pleasant afternoon light. The set design and food photography transport us to another time and might inspire one to plan a visit to either Aix-en-Provence or the nearest French restaurant, but it doesn’t do more than that.
Cézanne (1839-1906) is an important artist, bridging the gap between the Impressionists and Cubists like Picasso and Modernists like Henri Matisse. He outlived Zola (1840-1902), but Zola risked his reputation and all his hard-earned wealth when he wrote an open letter , “J’accuse,” to the president of France regarding a French-Jewish officer who had been unjustly convicted of treason and imprisoned. The letter was published on the front page of a newspaper in 1898. “J’accuse” was an ominous foreshadowing of the betrayal of French Jews in the next century, but the movie doesn’t wade into those deep waters.
“Cézanne et Moi” is only recommended for fans and scholars of either of the two men and can be used as a footnote-like part of one’s mental bibliography. Once it streams online, you might watch it on one of those lazy afternoons when you want pleasant background scenery as you do something more important.