Cezanne and I tells the story of the life-long friendship between French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cezanne (Guillaume Gallienne) and French writer Emile Zola (Guillaume Canet). The two meet during a playground scuffle at school where the mild-mannered Zola is spared a black eye when the brash Cezanne comes to his rescue. What develops during the course of the film is a creative rivalry played out in flashbacks and heated conversations when the two men can stomach to be together in the same room. Historically the influence of these two men is undeniable, but Cezanne and I falls short of telling an interesting story about their relationship leaving me to wonder if there is one in the first place.
The film opens with Zola dreading the arrival of Cezanne to his home. It’s been awhile since they have seen each other and both are older men. Zola has seen success early in his lifetime through the publication of a few novels and Cezanne is still struggling to have his work accepted in a world captivated by Impressionism (think Manet, another painter that makes an appearance in this film). The film then jockeys back and forth through time, rather haphazardly, as we see a young Zola living with his single mother surviving on birds he catches in the street, and Cezanne being browbeaten by his wealthy yet imposing father. Time continues on from those early days, as Zola in his new found wealth must now be Cezanne’s champion and a sounding board for his explosive and dramatic outbursts.
The flashbacks in this film serve more to bring the audience up to speed on the historical facts of these men’s lives rather than analyze their relationship to each other and their work. This condensing of material results is an artificial complexity in the storytelling that doesn’t need to be there. The pacing is slow and nothing particularly interesting happens beside Cezanne ranting and raving about the dupes at the Academy not accepting his work, or criticizing Zola for plagiarizing their life story together in his novels. Zola responds that it’s Cezanne’s inability to say a kind word to anyone that makes his paintings so stilted and lifeless despite his talents. The best way to describe their relationship is that of two people who have grown apart due to lack of insight and diverging life paths. It’s not particularly cinematic nor does it come to any conclusions about the complexity of longterm friendships, especially between creative individuals.
The character development is also lacking and makes getting into the action of the plot more difficult. Canet’s Zola is reserved and well-intentioned but also selfish and prone to arrogance. Gallienne’s Cezanne is also selfish, dramatic, and prone to self-martyrdom. Both men also have horrendous attitudes towards the women in their lives which makes them even less likable. By the film’s end it’s hard to root for the continuation of their friendship (or their “marriages”). In fact, they are probably better off apart both for the sake of their work and their sanity.
I wanted to like this film more, especially because the visuals tend to be engaging despite the lack of Cezanne’s actual art that we see. There are beautiful scenes of picnics by the water with flowy dresses, veils, parasols, and nude models but still Cezanne and I failed to register with me. There may be another story here that spends less time going through the mechanics of history and more on interpreting the importance of that history on the men involved.
Cezanna and I opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Jill Malcolm
Jill is happiest attending midnight screenings with other crazy film fans at her local theater. Her other passions include reading, traveling to faraway places, cat videos, pugs, and jalapeño peppers. She is co-founder of the blog Filmhash.