“I can’t remember why I love you so much.”
Two boys meet in a small town in France, they have different backgrounds, but become great friends. They dream of life in Paris. When they grow up they head off to seek fame and fortune. They become the post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne and novelist/journalist Émile Zola. Cézanne et Moi is a fictionalized account of the lifelong—and often troubled—friendship of these two paragons of the arts in 19th Century France.
It should be noted that from an American perspective, Cézanne is far better known. Many Americans only know Zola because of his part in the Dreyfus Affair. Yet in their time, Zola was an important novelist whose fame far outshone that of his boyhood friend.
This film, though is not about their literary or artistic accomplishments, but about the friendship that goes back to their childhoods in Aix-en-Provence. Zola (Guillaume Canet) was an Italian immigrant whose father had died. He grows up without wealth or advantage. Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienau) is from a well-to-do family. Both disdain the bourgeois ethic of the day. As adults they set off to Paris. Their lives continue in parallel even though they are in different fields. Zola finds success and quickly takes on the middle class trappings. Cézanne, although his family has wealth, chooses to live the life of a struggling artist. He never really finds acceptance in the art world. Even the outcast Impressionists don’t accept him.
The two men at times cross paths and renew their friendship, but often Cézanne behaves boorishly, or Zola says something that upsets his friend. There is a certain bromance angle to the film. The two men have a genuine affection for each other, but they often seem to be at odds. The real break comes when Zola publishes a novel with a character that Cézanne believes is based on him. He finds it insulting. Later in the film, when there is a chance at reconciliation, Cézanne hears Zola telling others that his friend is a genius, but “a stillborn genius”.
A thread of irony runs throughout the story. By the end of their lives, Zola had gained the world that Cézanne‘s family had always had, while Cézanne lives as though he were impoverished. Zola was by far more successful in their lifetime, but today Cézanne is far better known. But the highest irony is that these two men wanted the friendship they had when they were younger, but could never seem to reconnect with it.
The film demonstrates how fragile friendship can be. It also shows the value of friendship and what is lost when those bonds are not maintained. These two men could have added a great deal to each other’s lives, but their failure to stay connected meant that each was diminished.
Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures