Danièle Thompson’s Cézanne-Et-Moi is drenched with a self-importance that, though draining, is utterly fitting to the historical men it brings to life. The film follows the careers and life-long friendship of post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne) and writer Emile Zola (Guillaume Canet). In the introduction to these young boys their differences are distinct. Paul comes from a wealthy upbringing whereas Emile comes from a poor family, raised without a father. As they get older and their ambitions grow they leave the southern Aix-en-Provence of France in search of the lively Paris art scene. Rather quickly, Emile has it all–money, women and success–and Paul fights against it as he is rejected and ignored by his peers.
Luckily the film’s overlong run-time felt breezy thanks to the images the film captures. All of the beauty audiences come to expect from similar period and historical dramas are on display here. When the scenes of men standing in rooms shouting and arguing over trivial matters feels a little dull, the beautiful pastel colors in the background and the attention to period design will keep you interested–at least for a while longer.
The film is occasionally lively and pleasing to the eye but what makes it bearable are the performances by the two leads. Guillaume Canet as Emile Zola is sensitive and patient but never really earns the title of hero or even protagonist. He feels more like a bullied sidekick than ever a true, full person, which is part of the point. Guillaume Gallienne as Paul Cézanne is a lot of scenery chewing. He shouts, braves and performs his best melodrama all to himself. It’s Joaquin Phoenix meets Shia LaBeouf but where the discomfort level becomes funny instead of dramatically sardonic or challenging.
The film’s narrative is spliced back and forth from older days to the present where the rift that has clearly developed finds its roots in their earlier relationship. Instead of providing revelations the events chosen are uninspiring and dull. The cuts from present to past are mostly inconsequential. The complex and contradictory relationship at its center depends too much on the romantic and sexual betrayals. Even the scenes that hint at something more rush by in an attempt to encapsulate many moments of their lives as opposed to the important ones. What amasses are small moments of biopic-like melodrama that lead up to long, talkie fight scenes in big studies. It makes these attempts at meaningful spats feel silly or even petty instead of heartbreaking.
The complex and contradictory relationship between Zola and Cézanne is strong on its own but bogged down by unimportant details and meandering subplots. Whole character disappear–Baptistin Baille a childhood friend and number three in the trio has little mention after the films first act. Like a lot of the film, one wonders why they even bothered keeping him in. As the film slags on it feels like an overwhelming, though informative Wikipedia article that I would have just preferred to skim. There’s so much more going on beneath the surface–ambition, greed, desire–I wish Thompson would just give it to us.