Cezanne and Zola

"Cézanne and I” (Cézanne et moi) tells the story of the troubled friendship between the French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne and the French writer Émile Zola.  

When we first meet the young Zola, he is a poor boy catching birds so he and his mother will have something to eat for dinner. Cézanne, on the other hand, comes from a privileged background and contends not with poverty, but with bullying by an austere and imposing father.

The boys bond during a schoolyard scuffle in which the hotheaded Cézanne comes to the aid of the more prudent and placid Zola, sparing him a wicked bruising. From this day forward, their lives will be entwined, notwithstanding the divergent paths each will follow to glory.

The biopic traces their friendship from early school days to nights of debauchery and eventually to a reversal in social standing. All of which takes its toll, turning them from friends and co-conspirators to rivals—each anxious for the approval of the art salons, the galleries, the dealers and the ‘leading lights’ of their day.

Tumultuous Times

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Cézanne, sickened by the success of the Impressionist painters, forges ahead trying to capture an elusive vision—to find a way forward from nineteenth century painting to what we know as modern art. His early efforts meet with disdain in a world still captivated by the works of the Impressionists.

Although Zola comes to his friend’s defense, his words do not suffice to heal Cézanne’s wounded pride. The arguments and jealousies increase, in part because Zola, after the publication of a few novels, has become a wealthy man.    

Write What You Know! 

Eventfully they have a falling out over Zola's “L’Oeuvre,” a fictionalized depiction of Cézanne’s life that shows him as a loser, a failed painter.  Cézanne, a wild man, accuses him of plagiarizing their lives. In Zola’s defense, writers are told repeatedly: Write What You Know!  Zola did. When the book with its depictions of the bohemian lifestyle in Paris met with great acclaim, Cézanne accused Zola of 'selling out,' of siding with the bourgeoisie.

Madame Cezanne

Madame Cezanne

The Women Who Loved Them

The truth is that both men were anxious to succeed and insecure about their art.  Adding more misery to the tumultuous relationship is that Zola weds Camille, a woman who had previously been the lover of Cézanne. When she tells Cézanne, a misogynist boor, that the happiest day of her life was when she stopped loving him, I cheered. Of course, Zola, too, would later betray her by having an affair with a buxom young girl who enters his household as a seamstress and stays long enough to bear him two children.

Years later, Cézanne, against his family’s wishes, would live for many years with a woman made famous by his paintings of 'Madame Cezanne,' if a woman his family regarded as beneath them socially. He would only marry her after she bears him a son and he wants to protect his son’s patrimony. 

Spoiler Alert: The Ending

The most affecting scene comes toward the end of the film when Zola takes his mistress, Jeanne, and their children back to the village where he and Cézanne grew up and where Cézanne is still living. An approving crowd gathers to see and hear the renowned writer. Meanwhile, Cézanne, receiving word that Zola has come to town, lays down his brushes and races to the town square, where he hovers at the edge of the crowd—able to see Zola, but not saying a word. That left me dewy-eyed.

Two Paths to Glory

Of course, in both cases, history has the last word. Émile Zola courageously took on much of the French establishment, penning the newspaper article ‘J’Accuse,’ which led to the exoneration of the falsely-accused Alfred Dreyfus and to nominations for the Nobel Prize for Literature in both 1901 and 1902.  And Paul Cezanne, too, succeeded beyond all expectations. Art historians widely regard his seminal paintings as the foundation for what will be the transition from nineteenth century painting to twentieth century modern art.

In a Nutshell

Unlike some reviewers, I loved this period piece, a lush walk through French history and the French countryside.  But then I’m a pushover for studies of ‘genius’ and for films that transport me to exotic places—Aix-en-Provence—and former times. That these two geniuses, temperamentally 180 degrees apart, should have met and befriended one another seems improbable, and yet it happened. And the world is richer for it—if not the women who loved them and lived with them.

C'est tout pour cette semaine ...Until we meet again, remember…caring is sharing!  I’ll have the coffee waiting next Sunday…

PS: A week ago, in Portland, Oregon, Veronica's Grave took the Silver Medal at the prestigious IPBA Benjamin Franklin Award for Memoir 2017. Yay!

Another astonishing piece of news is that Harper-Collins Canada has bought the foreign rights for Veronica's Grave and is bringing out the memoir under a new title in June 2017. Woo!  

Barbara Donsky