Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Historical biopics are a dime a dozen. Not only do they all seem to follow the same formula, but most typically chronicle the rise and fall of a legendary artist. Director Danièle Thompson’s CÉZANNE ET MOI follows a similar, well-trodden path with brief divertsions into previously unexplored territory. What makes this stand out amongst the rest are the performances from a top notch cast, as well as the dynamic relationship on display between two highly regarded masters in their fields.
We begin with a traditional, but not useless wrap-around device – one that has prolific writer Emile Zola (Guillaume Canet) awaiting a visit from his long-time and estranged best friend Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne). The time spent waiting allows Zola to reflect, at times genuflect, on his childhood friendship with the painter, from their first schoolyard encounter onward. Once Cézanne arrives at the elder Zola’s residence, the warm memories dissipate almost as fast as their pleasantry-driven conversation dissolves. The pair pore over their friendship, dissecting everything from their art, to the real-life events that left their egos bruised. They talk about their marriages – Zola’s to fearless maid-turned-model Alexandrine (Alice Pol, who’s France’s answer to Kathryn Hahn) and Cézanne’s to long-suffering model/ wife Hortense (Déborah François). They reminisce about what went wrong in their careers. They talk about how each has fruitlessly tried to help the other. It all seems in vein as this friendly visit even further fractures their divide – or does it?
Thompson (IT HAPPENED IN SAINT-TROPEZ) sets the scenes in a beautifully restrained manner. Maybe a touch too restrained, as it’s hard to tell where the passion of this narrative lies. Is it in the sentiments about friendship? Or is it in the commentary on an artist’s latent ego? Or is it within a subtle treatise on narcissism? Maybe it’s all of these things, spoken softly when it should’ve been stated a tad louder. As it stands, historical facts take a greater role than any deep dramatic insight. We’re left desperately seeking that which isn’t there in satisfying quantity.
The film’s strength actually lies in the actors’ performances. Despite the material not being innovative enough, they astutely know when it’s their time to shine, finding the nuance-driven moments to elevate the proceedings. Canet temporarily eschews his inherent slippery sleazebag qualities – that is until he’s called upon to leer libidinously at his maid/ lover Jeanne Rozerot (Freya Mavor). Though the film doesn’t go into the sticky situation she presents to the Zola family (their affair birthed two children when he was still married to Alexandrine), Thompson gives Pol genuinely meaty moments. There’s a distinct duality to her character – the different people she represents to the men. Through Pol’s precision, she’s able to modulate these differences in effective and understated ways. Gallienne is also strong, giving face and emotional tether to the “underappreciated, ahead of his time” artist trope. He adds a sensitivity and vulnerability to the material, augmenting the emotions of his scenes. His journey is heartbreaking. And François is also good, gifting us with a “why don’t you f*ck me anymore,” Penelope-Cruz-in-BLOW-level breakdown without reverting to camp.
That said, if you’re not already inquisitive about what Zola and Cézanne’s relationship entailed, i.e. looking to fill in the gaps Wikipedia leaves open, then I’m not sure this will be the film to get you interested. If you’re interested in seeing an actor-driven movie, then, sure, this is for you.
CÉZANNE ET MOI opens in New York on March 31 and in Los Angeles on April 7, with a national rollout to follow.