Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Apr 03, 2017 9:38 am 
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Rival art pals story can't avoid tedium and cliché

This movie was inevitable eventually, because of the famous longtime friendship of the great French writer Émile Zola and equally famous French painter Paul Cézanne. But it's hard to avoid both cliché and tedium in this kind of double biopic. You need a director of exceptional boldness and originality, like the Maurice Pialat of the 1991 Vincent Van Gogh. It takes panache to approach history and not walk away cowed. Danièle Thompson doesn't manage it. She's down for the count early on. Over and over again (and she's credited with writing this too), she belabors the obvious, gets mired in needless historical detail, and throws out routine signposts to us just so we don't miss the point.

A special clinker comes when young Zola comes up to his new pal's house (they met as kids) and asks "Is Paul there?" And they answer "Paul Cézanne"? Over and over other famous figures they happened to know as the years go by are dutifully identified using equally clunky signposts. The movie's structural gimmick, the most obvious and somehow instantly cliched one, is to stress the (initially very rich) painter's growing jealousy and annoyance at the (initially poor and anti-bourgeois) writer's growing fame and financial success. The unrecognized artist is a chestnut that helps explain why Van Gogh is such a popular topic. Cézanne suffered a similar fate, except that he wasn't crazy, and did get some recognition during his lifetime. So what? Well, Thompson begins the movie in 1888 when the pair were both nearing fifty, and the disparity had begun to lead to a permanent rift, made worse when Zola wrote a failed painter into a novel who sounded too much like Cézanne. So this awareness, in a way, gives shape to the flashbacks: but it also limits and over-tints them all, so the individuality of moments before this difference developed can't shine forth. What should grow subtly and slowly hits us over the head at the outset.

Moreover, the storytelling is constipated and overstuffed. Thompson knows both too much and not enough. Far too many historical details, far too few scenes that sing on their own.

There's an odd disparity between the actors, the two Guillaumes, Canet and Gallienne. Canet, as Cézanne, is a buttoned-down player (with a blandly handsome everyman look), well remembered from the thriller Tell No One, well suited to play the teacher in the new War of the Buttons or the horseman Pierre Durant in the picture about horsemen, Jappeloup; in fact he's from a family of horse breeders himself. Canet seems uncomfortable in this artistic role as the intense, severe painter, forced to engage in shout fests with the flashy Gallienne. Guillaume Galliene, "Of the Académie Francaise" - who seems to feel at home in gay roles, whatever that may mean (he admits to being bi-), as Zola - what is the logic of that? My feeling is that neither man had anything of the flashy or the feminine about him, though Zola may have been fiery and Cézanne stolid and sullen. Neither actor is right.

There isn't much time to establish their characters anyway, because Thomspon is so busy filling in historical plot points in every new scene. But we do get a couple of embarrassing shouting-sessions, led by Gallienne, with Canet straining to keep up. Gallienne seems to have forgotten he's not on the stage in this one. From what I've seen so far, Gallienne has not impressed. The 2013 comedy he starred in and directed, Me, Myself and Mum (originally Les garçons et Guillaume, à table!), which won him a raft of awards, has not passed my way.

As Mike D'Angelo pointed out in his review for AV Club, Cézanne et Moi has the failing typical of such biopics: it shows us virtually nothing of either artist's work or the process of making it. We barely glimpse Cézanne's paintings or get any discussion of his style or how it's unique and fresh (which would have helped clarify why he got so often rejected by the Salon and what bothered them): we just get shots of him dabbing paint on canvas. And there is nothing of Zola's distinctive intellectual point of view, the style and approach that was so powerful and influential, and hence nothing to justify the title's implication that this film is from the point of view of Zola, and not Cézanne. D'Angelo's starting point, that Thompson gets too bogged down in unnecessary historical and biographical information and subsidiary historical characters, may be the best explanation of why this movie is so uninteresting to watch.

If there's a contest for worst glossy French historical movie about artists, Cézanne and I could be a prime contender. And this is by general consent. The rating in AlloCiné, the French review aggregator, is 2.4 out of 5.0 based on 28 reviews. Enough said. Metacritic's is an equally miserable 53%.

Cézanne and I/Cézanne et moi, 107 mins., debuted theatrically in Balgium/Switzerland/France 21 Sept. 2016, spreading out to other countries thereafter. US release 31 Mar., wider 7 Apr.

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