The “moi” in this case is Emile Zola, who was also the “I” in the Dreyfuss Affair J’Accuse. Despite his tremendous literary success at the time, Zola is now best known outside of France for his personal associations: the defender of the unjustly convicted captain and the estranged friend of Impressionist-forerunner Paul Cézanne. Opting for intimate drama over grand scandals, Danièle Thompson focuses squarely on the latter relationship throughout Cézanne et Moi (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
In 1888, Cézanne visits his old friend Zola for the final time. Initially, they are cordial and even nostalgic, but the publication of Zola’s novel The Masterpiece hangs over the meeting. Everyone in the Smart Set considers the self-destructive protagonist to be a thinly veiled portrait of Cézanne, especially Cézanne himself. As the painter and the novelist dance around the issue, Thompson flashes back to episodes from their childhood and their early years scuffling in Paris.
Essentially, we see them switch positions. Zola, the naturalized Italian, will rise up out of his family’s mean circumstances to become one of the most widely read writers of his day. Conversely, Cézanne is born to privilege, but will be spurned by the art establishment as well as polite society. Nevertheless, he stubbornly adhered to his own artistic vision, earning an only partly unfair reputation for being a misanthropic recluse as a result.
C et Moi might have made a better stage play than a motion picture. The title roles offer a great deal of meat for two somewhat more mature actors to chew on. The classy subject matter also holds an obvious appeal to costume drama fans. Thompson seems to recognize she lacks the lightness of touch that made the best Merchant-Ivory films such lovely jewel boxes. Instead, she takes the film in another direction, penning some brutally frank, cruelly caustic exchanges. Indeed, the best scenes in the film focus on the two artistic giants, as they carve into each other as only formerly close comrades can.
Guillaume Gallienne (of the Comédie-Française) and Guillaume Canet are terrific as Cézanne and Zola, respectively, at least when they get to really play off each other (whereas, the flashbacks to their student years feel like routine historical drama exposition.) However, Alice Pol adds an element of unpredictability as befits Zola’s once scandalous wife Alexndrine (as she is now known).