Only a tortured French painter could spice up the stodgy confluence of culture and high society by starting a brawl in a crowded museum, and about a half an hour into writer-director Danièle Thompson’s Cézanne et Moi, that’s what happens. Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne) and Émile Zola (Guillaume Canet), lifelong friends and the film’s primary subjects, go on a jaunt to the Salon, the Académie Des Beaux-Arts’ official annual arts’ exhibition, where the viewing public has gathered to “judge the legitimacy” of paintings submitted to and rejected by the Salon’s jury. Cézanne and Zola sit, soaking in the disdainful critiques of the gathered throng until Cézanne can suffer their commentary no longer.
“You can see it in the Louvre!” he roars at one museum-goer, leaping to his feet. “If you’ve never seen a nude, get close!” He grabs the gentleman by the neck and attempts to literally rub his face into the painting in question. Decorum is breached. A ruckus ensues. For a moment, Cézanne et Moi crackles with life. If you’re going to use a biopic to educate audiences on the backgrounds of both Zola and Cézanne, two of the most profoundly influential artists of the past century and a half, then you’ve got to find a way to discharge their pent-up creative energies somehow, lest you render your film dry and without any flavors worth savoring. A violent outburst in an art gallery seems an effective means of achieving the right balance of zest and authenticity.
The longer the film endures, though, the clearer it becomes that any outburst will do the trick. Cézanne et Moi, like so many movies of its make, is tedious, a chore rather than a joy, which is arguably antithetical to the very notion of making art in celebration of artists. Thompson tries to structure her narrative around Cézanne and Zola’s falling out in 1888, spurred by publication of Zola’s L’Oeuvre, a novel whose protagonist is derived from Cézanne himself, a struggling artist stuck on the fringes of the realm of success. The film begins as the two meet as older men for the first time in several years, cutting back and forth via flashback to the youth they shared together, beginning with their first schoolyard meeting, where Cézanne saves Zola from a harsh beating.
Perhaps not coincidentally, this is where Cézanne et Moi begins to run into trouble. The boys’ introduction is cornball to the extreme: They shake each other’s hands, swap names, and presto, they’re inseparable. But as soon as they form their childhood bond, they set the tone for the rest of the movie. Thompson seems unable to acclimate her viewers to Cézanne Et Moi’s period or place without overwhelming them with incidental and unnecessary details, bending over backwards to make sure everybody knows Edouard Manet and Guy de Maupassant exist in the film’s background. This isn’t storytelling—it’s pedantry. You might reasonably assume that a movie titled Cézanne et Moi would be about Cézanne, for one, and also “moi,” but even when the camera lingers on Gallienne, it rarely ever feels like it’s about his character at all.
This is too bad, because Gallienne, encumbered by the most untamed beard to grace screens in 2017 thus far, gives a stellar performance. He infuses Cézanne with unruly vigor, an uncivilized man forced to endure a civilized society’s codes of etiquette and play by its rules. To a point, you will admire his spirit. Past that point you’ll find him repellent, but like any good train wreck, it’s impossible to take your eyes off of him. (“Train wreck” here being a thoroughly positive term.) If anyone keeps Cézanne et Moi afloat as Thompson treads water, it’s Gallienne, though it’s perhaps cruel to dismiss Thompson outright: She does have a magnificent eye for landscapes, as is fitting of a picture even partly focused on Cézanne, whose landscape paintings rank among his most influential.
Cézanne et Moi is often beautiful, but even more often than that it’s constipated. Like so many other biopics, the film makes the rookie mistake of pondering the figure more than it does their work, and a film about Cézanne and Zola begs to ponder their work. Each time Thompson considers her framing and composition with a painterly eye, each time she and cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou linger on the red-streaked hills, the lapping lakeshores, the lush riverbanks of their setting, Cézanne et Moi feels very much like a painting come to life. But the film doesn’t stick with these sights long enough for them to make a lasting impression, and instead is more content to tease us with Cézanne and Zola trivia at the expense of the stuff of good drama. (It’s noted, for instance, that Zola could pop a boner just by sitting down to write, but forget any mention of the Dreyfus affair and J’accuse. If neither of those phrases hold any meaning for you, you should probably just head to a library and skip the movie.)
Boiling down Cézanne and Zola’s friendship to a troubled bromance is sort of insulting, whether they’re warring over women (a’la Alice Pol, playing Alexandrine, who is first romanced by Cézanne and later married to Zola), their careers, their upbringings or their disciplines. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with a biopic that’s on par with other biopics as far as playing too broadly (and a scattered emphasis), but Cézanne et Moi deserved to be more than just on par. It deserved to be as challenging and illuminating as the work of both of these artists.
Director: Danièle Thompson
Writer: Danièle Thompson
Starring: Guillaume Canet, Guillaume Gallienne, Alice Pol, Déborah François, Sabine Azéma, Lucien Belves, Hugo Fernandez
Release Date: April 7, 2017
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for The Playlist and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.