Helen Tope reviews Cezanne and I. It’s showing in the cinema until 6 July.
Cezanne and I tells the story of one of art’s most famous friendships. Meeting during their childhood, the novelist Emile Zola and the artist Paul Cezanne become friends, but as they grow up and enter the world, one becomes a success, while the other gets left behind.
After writing a series of highly successful novels, Zola publishes L’Ouevre (The Masterpiece). The novel tells the story of an artist, Claude Lantier, whose talent is misunderstood by the critics and gallery-going public alike. Angry and frustrated, Lantier cannot live up to his potential. Zola’s character is Cezanne to the letter.
In reality, the artists stopped exchanging letters after Zola sent Cezanne a copy of the book. However, in Cezanne and I, a confrontation between the men acts as a catalyst to show us where it all went wrong. On paper, the orphaned Zola and the moneyed Cezanne are unlikely friends, but their common goal – to create art that is new, exciting and dynamic – compels them to each other.
Their friendship only begins to diverge as Zola becomes recognised for his novels. An exponent of earthy realism, Zola, praised for his depiction of working lives, becomes that rarity, a best-selling novelist. Cezanne, on the other hand, struggles. His work is uncertain, unconnected. His pursuit of recognition becomes ever more desperate as the years roll by. He is, by his own admission, a failure. Zola’s book comes at the height of Cezanne’s frustration, and Cezanne sees himself in The Masterpiece all too clearly. As a result, their friendship is not only broken, it is beyond repair.
Director Daniele Thompson tells the story of Zola and Cezanne’s friendship through some great set pieces, including a dinner held at Zola’s home. It is a gathering of the French cultural elite (Maupassant et al). Too much wine is consumed, and the praise heaped on each other turns to censure. The denouement – where Cezanne overhears his friends candidly discussing his failure to launch – is nothing short of devastating.
It lends the film a poignancy that feels Chekhovian, but here the sense of failure, we know will prove to be temporary. Where the film succeeds is in not editorialising; it presents Zola’s triumph and Cezanne’s grief as they are – an accident of circumstance. Having Daniele Thompson as director also ensures that the female voices in the story don’t get lost. Sabine Azema as Elisabeth Cezanne is superb: as Zola’s mother, she becomes a surrogate source of comfort for Cezanne, whose own familial bonds are complex at best. Cezanne’s own treatment of his model and partner, Hortense, isn’t shied away from either, but given to us straight. It’s not palatable, but it’s not meant to be. Thompson gives us the whole picture of an artist at work; the blank pages, the ripped-up sketches. The film asks one question throughout – what is success? – and in the depiction of the artistic endeavour, the film shows us that the path to recognition is far from straightforward, and accolades are not always earned.
As the eponymous lead, Guillaume Gallienne gives an intensely charismatic performance as the painter, struggling to find his form. Now revered as a founding father of modern painting, it is hard to believe that Cezanne, for the large part of his career, was considered a failure. Finding his groove in still-life and landscape, Cezanne eventually found success in later life after a solo exhibition of his work was staged in 1895. His work was not well received by the public, but it was a critical success. Cezanne’s time had come, but by then, the damage to his friendship with Zola had already been done.
The character-driven performances from Gallienne and Guillaume Canet dovetail perfectly. Cezanne’s bombastic railing against the establishment; Zola’s quiet but dogged determination to write the lives of ordinary men and women. Canet as Zola does an excellent job of portraying an artist living in buttoned-down caution, struggling to voice his desires. The differences are not just painted in broad strokes, but observable in the detail too – compare Zola’s neat and coiffured appearance to Cezanne’s chaotic (but colourful) bohemian style. Far from being one-note, the presentation of the two characters offers up a master-class in how costume, hair and make-up contribute to the story. As Cezanne begins to find himself, his dress becomes more harmonious. By contrast, Zola finds himself trapped in the stricture of 19th century tailoring – quite literally, conformity by design.
Visuals count for a great deal in this film, and Thompson makes good use of the locations that inspired both artist and writer. The back-streets of Paris, and the silent grandeur of Montaigne Saint-Victoire, overlooking Aix-en-Provence. The film pays homage to the impact of landscape on the artists’ lives in the final frame when a camera shot of Saint-Victoire melts away to reveal Cezanne’s own interpretation of the mountain. Immovable and yet ever changing, the mountain was his muse. Painted in different lights, over sixty times during his career, the effect not only serves to remind us of Cezanne’s ability to observe and distil; it is a thundering rejoinder to those who questioned the calibre of his talent.
The final analysis is not so much how one genius was favoured over another, but how such comparisons lose their meaning over time. Today, the achievements of Cezanne and Zola are equally regarded. It is a curious irony, and one not lost on the film. As Cezanne and I comes to a close, it is remarkable to think how different the worlds of literature and art would be without them.