This biopic about the post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne and the novelist Émile Zola is part of the ’24th French Film Festival’ with screenings across a range of venues in Scotland and England between November 3rd and December 7th. Primarily a Scottish affair, this festival makes us in England very envious, but also grateful for the opportunity to catch one or two titles. Cézanne et moi played at Hebden Bridge Picture House which also screened The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge).
French cinema deals with ‘heritage’ topics much like British cinema with adaptations of literary texts and historical dramas and this biopic fits the pattern of 19th century dramas – strong on surface realism and ‘authenticity’. It is beautifully photographed by the experienced Jean-Marie Dreujou and writer-director Danièle Thompson has assembled a mainly female creative team who do an excellent job on set design, costumes, make-up etc. Thompson herself has a long track record as a scriptwriter and this is her sixth directing role after some fifty years in the industry. Her earlier scripts for historical dramas include La reine Margot (1994) and a well-received TV adaptation of Stendahl’s Le rouge et le noir (1997). My overall impression is that this latest film is a conventional biopic in terms of its structure.
I went into the screening with relatively little knowledge of the details of the lives of either Cézanne or Zola and though I recognised the names of many of the other characters, I could not claim any real knowledge of the ‘community’ of artists or writers in 19th century France. As a result, I was engaged by the film mainly because I was learning about these interesting artists (and as far as I can see the film is historically accurate, though some manipulation of dates here and there may have been necessary to create a satisfactory narrative structure). On the other hand, I did struggle to recognise characters and with more prior knowledge I might have got more out of the ways in which the differences between the two men are presented. In the simplest terms, Zola suffered from the early death of his engineer father and struggled for money as a young man but eventually became a best-selling writer and a wealthy man. By contrast, Cézanne’s family was wealthy and he received an allowance as a young man before inheriting the family fortune in later life, yet he struggled to sell his paintings during his lifetime and it was not until after his death that his genius was fully recognised by the artists of the early 20th century.
The casting decision about the two leads intrigued me. Cézanne is played by Guillaume Gallienne who is billed as a member of the Comédie-Française. Although I have seen him before in some of his many film roles, this still makes me think of him as first a theatre player. Guillaume Canet who plays Zola is, I would argue, a French film star (and director). In this film, though both players were very good, I did feel that Gallienne ‘inhabited’ Cézanne as a character, whereas Canet did seem to ‘acting’ in his performance. These were just my impressions and they may have more to do with the nature of Cézanne and Zola as characters. The film’s title implies that the narrative offers Zola’s view of Cézanne. I’m not sure the narration has that emphasis, though it is certainly Cézanne who is the principal focus in the latter stages. But then, it often seems that the process of painting is more amenable to representation on screen than that of writing. But it does mean that we learn more about Cézanne’s attempts to capture the landscapes of Provence, portraits and still life compositions – whereas we see little of Zola’s inspiration for his realist/naturalist novels.
Zola and Cézanne first met as boys in Provence in the early 1850s when Zola’s father was an engineer on a large dam. They were re-united in Paris as young men and remained friends until the late 1880s and the publication of Zola’s novel L’œuvre in 1886 which tells the story of an artist who struggles to paint the great picture which will be seen as worthy of his genius. The suggestion is that Cézanne found the character to be too close to his own experience and that it implied he had failed as an artist. Thompson moves between the various periods of the relationship between the two men and I do wonder if a tighter focus would have made for a more effective narrative (with possibly more about Zola’s work).
Despite its focus on the two men, Danièle Thompson also develops the roles for the women in their lives and I enjoyed the performances of Déborah François as Hortense, Sabine Azéma as Cézanne’s mother and Alice Pol as Zola’s wife Alexandrine. Here’s a trailer with English subs: