Cezanne et Moi: J’Snooze, by Alexander Miller

Did the French venerate Dalton Trumbo so much that they decided to desecrate one of their celebrated writers as some bizarre form of cinematic retribution for 2015’s Trumbo? Otherwise, I can’t think of a decent reason for Cezanne et Moi to exist. While this flimsy theory about international biopic revenge sounds ludicrous, try watching Cezanne et Moi and you might have some strange ideas as well.

Danielle Thompson’s film charts the love/hate lifelong friendship between naturalist painter Paul Cézanne and politically active writer Emile Zola. Beginning with the two artists, a shade past middle age, their relationship has seemingly deteriorated to an air of despair and hostility, what could have happened to such dear friends? What follows is a flashback that spoon feeds us the typical “shake hands and exchange names, so we know you’re the famous people” introduction when Paul aides a bullied Emile in the schoolyard. Emile Zola’s humble beginnings were that of a poor outsider while Paul Cézanne enjoyed a comfortable upbringing; fortunes would drastically change as Zola would be a renowned author and Cézanne a struggling artist whose brilliance wasn’t recognized until he had passed on.

As the jerky, non-linear narrative clunkily jumps through time, we learn that the hostile climate ties into Zola’s L’Oeuvre, which thinly veils Cézanne in an unflattering light. The film wants us to believe that the strain between these two stems from the passion and the pain of their artistic endeavors but Zola and Cézanne’s constant torrent of bickering, soppy exchanges makes us wonder why we should even give a shit. The reductive portrait of Cézanne and Moi (Zola) is, unfortunately, the most impactful aspect of the film.

You’d think that a movie about two artists would show some interest in the process or creation of art but the physical act of the creative endeavor offers us no respite with the temperamental painter punching his canvases, berating his models who are often his wives, girlfriends, or former lovers. There are some ironic chuckles to be had at the idea of the painter who punches his art, but the significance of Paul Cézanne’s work (which is seldom revealed throughout) takes that unintentional humor out of the equation.

Guillaume Gallienne is energetic if stagy as Paul Cézanne; his surging presence evokes a convincing, untamed bohemian feel. Given the inflexibility of the script he maintains a curious composure. Guillaume Canet looks and feels completely wooden and uncomfortable as Emile Zola. As a character, he feels rigid and unrealized; he’s either defending or taking abuse from Cézanne throughout the film. Cézanne et Moi gives way to a lot of abusive rhetoric, awkward moments and expository dialogue that feels like it was crafted around an art history course with its titular characters rubbing elbows with Edouard Manet, Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro. These come off like glorified cameos for the sake of referential amusement. It seems like Thompson made a film about artists that’s aesthetically vapid without any insight into its venerated figures–the result is a disjointed feature about people being shitty to each other.

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