From Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh in Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 cinematic treatment of Irving Stone’s 1934 novel, Lust for Life, to Isabelle Adjani’s celebrated 1988 portrayal of the oft-overlooked sculptor Camille Claudel (based on a book by Claudel’s relative), this genre has mythologized historical artists with tactical truthiness — the result of mixing archival research and location shooting (reality effects) with the exaggerations of character acting honed to conform to what a director or broader public feels a historical actor ought to have really been like. That is, the biopic is a form of realism dependent upon at least a certain degree of wish-fulfilling theatricality.
When viewed through this abbreviated historical optic, Cézanne et Moi, the most recent project by the French writer-director Danièle Thompson (Cousin Cousine, 1975, and Avenue Montaigne, 2006), turns out to be a pretty ambitious film. Not only does it seek to document the fraught friendship between two titans of French cultural history — Paul Cézanne and Émile Zola — but it also derives its main conflict from the central issue of its genre: transforming a painter into a character. Zola’s Cézannesque portrayal of Claude Lantier in his ethnographically detailed novel of the Parisian art world, L’Oeuvre, has long been understood as the breaking point in the two men’s friendship. A fictionalized dispute over the book set a couple of years after its publication serves as the film’s connective thread for Thompson’s fast-paced survey of their lives: both dream big in Provence, and Zola makes it big in Paris, while Cézanne retreats back to the South in order to cultivate his singular, but as yet unappreciated, talents.
Whereas Lust for Life and Camille Claudel faced the challenges of adaptation, Cézanne et Moi raises the stakes by having to work with and against its source material. The challenge was not to adapt L’Oeuvre, but to create historical drama out of the contestation of this pivotal novel’s legitimacy as fiction. For Cézanne, the issue with L’Oeuvre was that it was simply too true to life, and he accused his friend of having cruelly appropriated his own personality for the character of Claude. For Zola, the characters were successful fictions, functioning as hybrids of various members of the contemporary artistic and literary avant-garde, himself included.
In spite of the film’s fascinating material and its cast’s admirable performances, Cézanne et Moi disappoints. Its greatest weakness might derive from its over-identification with Zola and his fictions. (Its title suggests as much.) L’Oeuvre functions as the film’s gravitational center, and entire scenes are clearly inspired by sequences in the novel. This might have succeeded in a clear-cut adaptation of the novel, but here these scenes have the bizarre task of superimposing real historical actors with their fictional personas. Moreover, certain L’Oeuvre-inspired scenes seem to have been included in order to advance the film’s apparent sympathy for Cézanne’s claims against Zola, such as in an overwrought feud between Cézanne and his mistress-then-wife model in which she decries the painter’s erotophobic preference for his monstrous copies of her. These complaints will be familiar to readers of Zola’s novel, since they directly paraphrase the disappointments of the novel’s own model-lover-wife character, Christine. Even for those less interested in late 19th-century French literature, the scene’s relationship to Zola is made plain, since we watch as he surreptitiously witnesses the lovers’ dispute through a crack in the studio door and then later cribs it in a public reading of the novel, as the painter listens discreetly at the back of the crowd.
The issue with this treatment is not that it overstates Zola’s dependency on his friend’s personal history; rather it lies in the film’s dumbing down of the novelist’s efforts to produce convincing fictions of his life-world, since it is clear that we are not meant to spend much time thinking about the writer’s craft during this reading scene. (Or perhaps Thompson is actually making a jab at the quality of L’Oeuvre, which is by no means Zola’s best in the Lantier-centered books of the Rougon-Macquart.)
At this point, it might be worth qualifying the nature of Thompson’s over-identification with Zola: she gravitates to his content (particularly his investment in the artist’s temperament), not his form. To risk cliché, I am inclined to suggest that Thompson may very well have figured out how to tell a Zola-esque story, but that she lacked the ability to paint a picture worthy of him or Cézanne. Indeed, Zola’s greatest achievements as a writer are his well-worked (really, laborious) passages of description, which often interrupt the flow of his stories with dilating intensities. In contrast, the film’s scenes are all relatively short and the plot advances in hiccupy intervals. The result is a flattening of the psychological strangeness and imagistic vivacity (lush cinematography notwithstanding) of naturalist fiction and Post-Impressionist painting. Even scenes inspired by period paintings lack the beauty of the tableaus they wish to quote. In one instance, where the film takes its cues from the monumental Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Monet’s, not Manet’s), we are offered a ham-fisted, didactic exchange between Cézanne and Zola over the issues of plein air painting and catch glimpse of the underrated Impressionist, Berthe Morisot, in a gratuitous and patronizing (read: mute) walk-on blip. Viewers with the reasonable expectation that this 2016 film might offer a richer portrayal of women than Zola’s 19th-century misogynist fabrications should think again. From discussions of Cézanne’s ballsy paint-handling to Zola’s creative sterility and his accusation of Cézanne’s aborted genius, the whole issue of artistic creation in Cézanne et Moi is reduced to a period-cliché of cojones.
The film seems to suffer as well from a period problem, one that was all too well known to painters of Cézanne’s generation — the challenge of working with so many sources. Pilfering from a range of primary materials, the film’s script never quite achieves its attempted capture of a believable 19th-century feel. Hysterical cries of outrage from onlookers of Manet’s scandalous Déjeuner sur l’herbe are actually citations and paraphrases from contemporary French criticism and caricutural illustrations. Their canned punch lines and often unseen speakers make the whole Salon des Refusés scene appear disjointedly cartoonish. Other source texts, including the letters between Cézanne and Zola and Ambroise Vollard’s memoirs, are sprinkled into dialogue and give it a stilted, writerly feel. Even Zola’s comments about Cézanne to the mayor of Aix at the film’s close are actually taken from the writer’s real published remarks. That the painter overhears the comments in yet another scene of unlikely omniscience may achieve a desired sense of late-in-life wistfulness, but it is a cheaply won sentimentality.
Beyond the rich artistic and literary transformations to which Zola and Cézanne both contributed, these men also lived through a remarkable period of political upheaval and contestation. This history is relegated in the film to dismissive chatter or in purely private declarations of mourning (over the death of Bazille in the Franco-Prussian War, for instance), but is never addressed with any seriousness. Instead, the film opts for the mythic view that Cézanne’s flight from Paris and contemporary artists’ retreats to the south of France actually could achieve an escape from history into an autonomous realm of aesthetic idyll, rather than constituting in itself a politics (be it utopian or revanchist, or a bizarre prelapsarian mix of the two). This allows for the film to retain its tabloid-esque interest in its character’s temperaments, rather than their beliefs. We learn about how the aftermath of the Paris Commune affected book and painting sales rather than its impacts on leftist morale. We also observe the author of J’accuse…! politely sidestep talk about the Dreyfus Affair in favor of trivial gossip, instead of learning anything about how deeply the scandal divided the French cultural scene.
In retrospective justification for the creative license she has taken in imagining the late meeting between Zola and Cézanne that structures the film, Thompson cites a recently discovered letter that dates later than any previously known to historians and collectors:
The letter ends with “I am going to come see you.” In 1887! A full year after the last known letter. Isn’t that extraordinary? My dramatic license was suddenly plausible. What I imagined may really have happened!
There is an evident wish in this quote that, in spite of her many imaginative reconstructions, her film might actually do justice to these two figures that she is so clearly inspired by and invested in. And yet, for all of the research that went into it, Cézanne et Moi flattens the history it seeks to portray and the complexity of its protagonists, particularly their achievements as writers and painters. Determined to create a plausible biopic, Thompson may instead have unwittingly made a temperamental fiction perfectly suited for our age of alternative facts.