The Impressionist painters were to the French Academy what punk rockers were to the conservative pop-music establishment — wild, unruly artists who refused to conform to the standards of what passed for good taste — and yet, to watch a movie like “Cézanne et moi” is to be treated to one of those frou-frou French costume dramas in which Pathé specializes: an impeccably tasteful night at the art house for those who fail to see the contradiction in appropriating this once-scandalous chapter in art history as fodder for mousepads and screensavers.
The cinematic equivalent of calendar art, “Cézanne et moi” oh-so-politely recaps the lifelong relationship between Paul Cézanne (played by thoroughly nonthreatening French actor Guillaume Gallienne) and Émile Zola (the even blander Guillaume Canet, husband of Marianne Cotillard), as the two once-rowdy friends meet as children and grow to see their respective life paths diverge. While Zola “sells out” and becomes a celebrated novelist, Cézanne sticks to a style that would not be fully appreciated until well after his death, making for a series of strained encounters as the increasingly disheveled artist relies on his old pal for encouragement over the years.
Brought to handsome yet melancholy life by writer-director Danièle Thompson (“Avenue Montaigne”), the film works best for those who weren’t aware that Cézanne and Zola shared such a bond, as opposed to French culture hounds already familiar the connection, which inspired Zola’s novel “L’œuvre,” whose tortured protagonist he based on the painter. The book plays a key role in the movie, since Cézanne was evidently none too flattered with the portrait and felt that Zola was exploiting their friendship — though in retrospect, the author’s admiration is clear, revealing a deep respect for a creative spirit who resisted the tastes du jour, and achieved artistic immortality in the process.
A veteran of the French filmmaking establishment, Thompson was Oscar-nominated for co-writing the taboo-confounding 1975 romance “Cousin Cousine,” and who has specialized in rendering complicated and potentially controversial relationships in perfectly accessible terms. Here, her idea of dramatic turbulence is to tell the story out of order, jumping back and forth in time, while offsetting the perfectly lit widescreen beauty of each scene with an ever-so-slightly unstable handheld shooting style. Visually, the approach makes for a subtle, almost-subliminal attempt to shake things up, but the movie remains entirely too traditional, despite these touches.
Perhaps too much time has elapsed since the 1860s, when the story begins, to do justice to Cézanne’s renegade spirit. A character can only seem so revolutionary when dressed in straw hats and suspenders, and even at his most disheveled (disguised beneath long hair and a woolly black beard), Gallienne makes for a thoroughly unconvincing slob. He’s a fine actor, but no force of nature, and the role seems to call for someone fiery enough to have gone his entire life without yielding to social conventions.
As written, Cézanne is a headstrong, hot-blooded lothario, constantly chasing women (an early conquest, played by Alice Pol, later agrees to marry Zola, complicating the dynamic between the two men considerably) and complaining about the lack of respect he gets from his peers. Meanwhile, Zola had the good fortune of being recognized as a genius during his own lifetime. With such acceptance comes the ability to settle into a state of comfortable domesticity in his country mansion — though in light of his activism, it’s hard to imagine him being quite the stuffy, pipe-smoking prig of Canet’s portrayal. Meanwhile, Cézanne scrapes by in a dingy Paris flat paid for by his wealthy friend, selling his paintings for a fraction of their worth (in one particularly depressing scene, his dealer/supplier shows Cézanne a still life from which he has cut a small square-shaped hole in the canvas, selling just the apple to a stingy client).
The most interesting aspects of Cézanne’s struggle are better captured in other works, most notably Ross King’s “The Judgment of Paris,” which depicts the rift between the Impressionists and the French Academy that supplies some of the film’s most interesting scenes — and explains how a painter of horses named Ernest Meissonier (whom you’ve most likely never heard of) was prized above all the artists whose work now sells for millions, but were rejected by the Academy for the annual salons at the time. Cézanne’s crime was painting loose, non-realistic landscape portraits en plein aire. Ironically, this very act of rebellion feels by far the tamest thing in the entire movie, which captures the splendor, if none of the defiance in this simple act, rendering scenes of the artist hiking across picturesque hilltops with his easel on par with idle afternoons spent tooling around in a rowboat with his buddy Zola.