Cézanne et Moi

A review by Dan Lalande

In Danièle Thompson’s Cézanne et Moi, we have the two personalities that define the core duality of the French character: the impulsive, alienating existentialist, and the civilized, sympathetic thinking man. We have seen both types, repeatedly, in France’s films – the first largely for comic or shock effect, the latter as everyman-hero – but rarely pitted against one another with such sustained balance as is the case here, with Thompson’s versions of the impoverished, piggish painter and the moneyed, meditative social champion-scribe.

It is a consistently interesting duel, a long, busy two-hander made with taste, finesse, and evident dramatic and technical control. The primary lesson we learn over its course, as the characters do in their contrasting ways, is that friendship is the most difficult of all relationships: precarious, prickly, and political, even if its core, like the one between these two great artists, remains uncorrupted.

We meet the titular odd couple as they mutually approach the last act of their careers. Zola, the humble Franco-Italian who has risen from nothing, is now a national hero living in the lap of luxury; Cézanne, the working-class hero fallen from privilege, remains unable to harness his talent to his satisfaction. His only taste of fame, to his chagrin, is his literary avatar, a character in Zola’s latest novel. Much scenery chewing – gratefully, the sincerest kind – ensues over the responsibility of the writer to his real-life inspirations. But the film, thankfully, is not consumed by anything so heady. It sticks, philosophical temptations be damned, to its simple, primary them:  the burden of the bond.

One suspects that a cardinal reason behind this choice was to allow the actors – both Guillaumes, Gallienne and Canet, the former of the famed Comédie Francaise –  to get their hands dirty. And indeed they do. For all of the flitty, modern editing, the best parts of the film are the longer moments between Monsieurs Gallienne and Canet, who both approach their roles with reverence and showmanship. Gallienne, as the pugnacious, self-pitying post-Impressionist, has the better assignment, one he throws himself into like a man stripping down to plunge into a lake – which, in one of the film’s many pastoral moments, he does. Gallienne’s Cézanne is a broken-hearted bear, a force of nature equal parts base appetites, relentlessly wicked wit, and perpetual frustration. At no point are the theatrics too theatrical, the pathos too pathetic, the unlikability too unlikeable. For all of its broadness, this is a performance of carefully controlled brush strokes.

Canet gets saddled with the introvert but makes enough of it. He is given his due in the resolution of the appropriation argument, in which he confesses literary impotence and general late-life malaise. It’s a turning point finely written and finely interpreted.

All of this is not to say that Thompson, whose work is shamefully little seen in North America (her last big credit North American credit the 1976 mega-hit Cousin, Cousine!) has forsaken the other artists that comprised their circle, nor the women that coloured their lives. The latter are given surprisingly strong if melodramatic sidebars, while the former just enough shading to eschew cries of tokenism. For all of that, though, we appreciate them most at play, in the swift, silent scenes in which they collectively enjoy the rural pastimes of La Belle Époque – swimming, boating, picnicking – against the eye-catching ochre, poetic opal, and glitzy green of Aix-en-Provence. Amazingly, despite the aforementioned accelerated editing, we are not robbed of any of this, gloriously brought out by the cinematography of Jean-Marie Dreujou.

Kudos, too, to those responsible for the translation. It smartly embellishes the meaning of much of the more colloquial French – even if the subtitles undermine this work with the odd typo.

Suggestion for that department’s next offense: take “it takes two to tango” and make it “it takes two to tangle.” It would fit the film regardless.

Dan Lalande is a writer and critic based in Ottawa. You can find him on his Youtube channel HERE.