Intensive research has killed many a biopic, but Cézanne Et Moi, which recounts the tempestuous lifelong friendship between Paul Cézanne and Émile Zola, labors even more tediously than most to accommodate personal details, whether or not those details serve the narrative. Cézanne and Zola met in childhood—a moment that writer-director Danièle Thompson (Avenue Montaigne) makes cheesy by depicting them shaking hands and exchanging names in the immediate aftermath of a schoolyard brawl—and they spent their youth in the company of another fast friend, Baptistin Baille. The trio were known as “the inseparables,” and we know this, in the movie, because someone passes them on the street and shouts, essentially, “Yo, the inseparables!” (Though that’s not half as clumsy, exposition-wise, as Zola asking “Is Paul here?” at Cézanne’s house and being asked “Paul Cézanne?”) Trouble is, Baille didn’t go on to accomplish anything particularly notable, and he mostly disappears from the movie after a speedy early montage. His presence serves only to forestall objections from people who know enough about Cézanne and Zola to ask “Hey, where’s Baille?” Those people should be ignored, in the interest of dramaturgy. Here, they’re the target audience.
Thompson attempts to give Cézanne Et Moi some shape by beginning in 1888, when the two men are middle-aged and about to part company for good. Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne), whose paintings wouldn’t be widely recognized as masterpieces until after his death, is furious at Zola (Guillaume Canet) due to the latter’s latest novel, L’Oeuvre. The book’s central character—an underachieving artist—is unmistakably a veiled portrait of Cézanne, though Zola insists that the work is fiction loosely inspired by their lives. As their argument rages, the film repeatedly flashes back to observe the contrasting trajectories these titans took, as the impoverished Zola gradually becomes one of France’s most successful novelists (and a member of the bourgeoisie he once despised), while Cézanne, who was born into great wealth, rejects his background and is repeatedly rejected, in turn, by the Académie Des Beaux-Arts’ influential Salon. Just to add some more friction, both fall in love with the same woman (Alice Pol).
As is almost always the case with biopics about creative geniuses, we learn virtually nothing about the work that made them famous. Few of Cézanne’s paintings are even shown (though generic shots of brushes daubing at the palette are plentiful), and the film, despite its title, is in no way told from Zola’s eloquent perspective—it could just as accurately have been called Zola Et Moi. That might not be a huge problem had Thompson succeeded in creating an indelible relationship, but she’s generally too busy trying to figure out how to let us know that the minor characters in various scenes are such equally important historical figures as Auguste Renoir, Édouard Manet, and Guy De Maupassant.
Canet’s performance as Zola requires him to spend a lot of time staring hungrily at his family’s live-in seamstress, because Zola would eventually have an affair and two children with her; that’s crucial to Zola’s biography, but has little to do with Cézanne (whose alleged lingering obsession with Zola’s wife is never convincing). Gallienne, a wild-eyed veteran of the Comédie-Française, brings some unruly energy to his scenes, and he gets the movie’s one great line, explaining why one of Cézanne’s models is frustrated with him: “I fuck her too fast and paint her too slow.” The rest is mostly picturesque flatline, however, and so emotionally hollow that when Zola tells Cézanne “I can’t remember why I loved you so much,” one can only nod in agreement.