Two in the wave

‘Cézanne et moi’ and the tribulations of friendships

The real-life friendship of painter Paul Cézanne and writer Émile Zola proved that any relationship that lasts longer than a decade tends to become a love/hate relationship.

Friendship, much like a marriage, isn’t just a long commitment of support, encouragement and acceptance; it’s a reflection of you, them and the world around and the world inside. No matter how similar two friends are in the beginning, their lives will eventually diverge, only then to converge once more at the starting point. The line that separates the two will become fuzzy and after enough time, a glance across the table might as well be a glance into the mirror.

That is the governing principle behind the friendship between famed post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne) and novelist, journalist and playwright Émile Zola (Guillaume Canet) in writer/director Danièle Thompson’s latest film, Cézanne et moi.

Covering the years from 1852 to the early 1900s, the film traces Cézanne and Zola’s friendship from young men testing the boundaries of the world to the love/hate relationship that would play out for the rest of their lives. Though, to be fair, any relationship that lasts longer than a decade tends to become a love/hate relationship.

As a boy in Aix-en-Provence, Cézanne grew up wealthy; Zola grew up poor. Both left for Paris to change the course of history and while Cézanne was repeatedly rejected, Zola found fame and wealth. Though Cézanne never lost his wealth, he grew reclusive and bitter. As one well-to-do character describes, “He lives his life in a dump for one minute of applause.”

Zola, now a member of the bourgeois that he so despised as a child, also bitters. Not out of rejection but out of acceptance. Zola has bills and status to maintain, both of which disgust Cézanne. They disgust Zola as well, but you can’t let them see you bleed.

For those unfamiliar with Cézanne and Zola, Cézanne et moi offers little in the form of historical context to help explain why Cézanne was rejected and why Zola was accepted. For those with an introductory knowledge of the subjects and the time period, Cézanne et moi is an interesting study of how artists play off and blatantly steal from each other. In Hollywood there is a phrase: “It’s not ‘show friends’ it’s ‘show business.’” Who knows what idiomatic equivalent was used during the Bella Époque but whatever it was, it fit Cézanne and Zola.

Though the push-pull of Cézanne and Zola’s relationship provides plenty of conflicts, too much of the movie’s tension lies just under the surface unable to burst out onto the screen. The movie is quite stunning to look at — several of Thompson and cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou’s compositions are so beautiful, so lush, they look like a Cézanne come to life. But they’re not enough. Even the most beautiful paintings must have a sturdy wall to be hung on. Cézanne et moi lacks that wall.