I recently had the chance to talk by phone with Danièle Thompson, the writer/director of Cézanne et Moi, a film about the lifelong—but troubled—friendship between post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne and novelist /journalist Émile Zola.
Cézanne is a fairly familiar name to American audiences, Zola less so (and then mostly because of the Dreyfus Affair). What should we know to more fully appreciate the film?
Maybe what I found out years ago—the first thing that I was surprised that I didn’t know, because obviously, we are more knowledgeable about these two characters in France because they’re both huge figures of the 19th Century of our culture. What I found out was that these two people were friends—two little boys in a very far away little town in the South of France in the 19th Century in a religious school. There were no other schools then in France. It’s very surprising that these two little boys will become, each in their own trade, would become among the most famous French people in the world. So I was intrigued by the fact that they had met so young and I’d never heard of that relationship.
I’d never heard about the letters they wrote to each other, which have been published and which are absolutely amazing and incredibly touching and passionate. There’s a huge book of those letters, which really reflects a very very intense relationship. Then the fact that life actually separated them all the time, but they managed to save their friendship for such a long time before the breakup. I also was very intrigued that the breakup was because of a book, because of the way that Cézanne felt, as he said in the film he felt literally raped by his best friend.
Then also I was very surprised by what I discovered about Cézanne. As you pointed out, Zola is quite well known because of the Dreyfus Affair, also because of his literature which is quite extraordinary. From the writing you discover a lot of the personality of the writer. A painter is much more hidden behind his work. I knew very little about Cézanne, I discovered a character that is described by many people, and the fact that he was unhappy and difficult and did not know actually how to be someone who was friendly or who was playing the game of the Paris art world. All the Impressionist had a hard time, but he was not even liked his fellow artists. He was not liked, of course, by the establishment. He actually really left the Impressionist movement quite early to try to find something else.
And we now today know that he did. We know that the paintings of the last 15 years are totally amazing and have changed the vision of all the artist that followed. All this made me think there was story to tell not about painting or not about literature, but about that very very particular relationship, which contained all these elements of how free an artist can be, or how the competition can also separate people and destroy a friendship. There are many, many different things that I thought could be interesting for an audience who just knew on a very superficial level these two men., which was my case.
I find it a bit ironic perhaps that in their life time, Zola was the one who was successful and known, but as you said many of Cézanne’s was never really accepted in the art world of the time. Now (at least for Americans) that is reversed.
Yes, well this isn’t fair. That’s something terribly painful for me to imagine. The different paths that these two men who were so close when they were adolescents, the fact that what you just said really separated them then and now it’s separating them exactly in the opposite way. I think one of the things that literally makes me want to cry is that not only was Cézanne ignored by his contemporaries, but Zola his best friend never really realized what a genius he was. That sentence he says at the end which was quoted by Vollard, the art dealer, which Zola really said, “What a pity, he was a genius, but he was an aborted genius.” It’s something that apparently people told Cézanne that Zola had said, so I used it and decided to write the scene so Cézanne would actually hear it live. But he said that.
Also, he died four years before Cézanne and never saw the last paintings. And the last paintings were the most revolutionary and the most amazing. They’re not only the beginning of Cubism, the inspiration for Cubism, but even for Abstraction. Even if Zola had seen these paintings I don’t think he would have understood, because by the end of his life he had become much more conservative. He actually renounced the enthusiasm he had when he was in his twenties and defended the Impressionists. He was a very young and brilliant journalist and art critic. Then he wrote some things at the end of his life which were also were used for one of the last scenes when they’re together in the dark room when he became a photographer. He really denied everything he said about the Impressionists. He said he couldn’t stand them anymore and they were all doing the same thing and it looked like laundry on canvasses. I don’t think he would have understood the revolution that Cézanne was beginning. That breaks my heart.
It seems to me that the ideal of the middle class is part of what creates turmoil between Zola and Cézanne. Perhaps even from childhood. Cézanne was born into it but doesn’t seem to care; Zola achieved it through his work. Do you see that same kind of conflict about bourgeoisie values today?
The bourgeoisie values today are much more diluted. This was very much, at the time, it was a clear contrast. Today I guess the values are much more mixed. There is now an opening with everything that has changes so much since the 19th Century that the bourgeoisie is not sure of their taste anymore. They’re very open I think to the other cultures. Then people were really locked in their traditions. And also, the bourgeoisie was very pretentious, very sure of itself. It’s not true anymore I don’t think.
What also fascinated me in the lives of these two young men as children is that one of them was really very poor and was very very eager not to become rich—because that was not Zola’s aim in life. But at least he wanted very much to afford a nice house and a lot of food and some nice dresses for his wife and his mother. It was for him a goal. He actually in his way of life became a bourgeois, never in his work, but in his way of life he became a bourgeois.
The other one, who was brought up by this rich father and had a very comfortable life, slowly really became a bum. He had very little money because he did not dare tell his father that he was actually living with a woman and having a son, so his father gave him just a little bit of money to survive as a painter alone. This is all true of course, something that is very well known. It is true also, I’ve spoken to Pizarro’s great-grandchildren and there’s some testimony he’d literally not smell very good. He would smell of garlic. He would not eat, not wash. He was also always covered with paint spots. He became more and more locked into his obsession with painting, not caring about anything else and not being really interested in the rest of the world. Where Zola was a humanist and someone who actually risked his life for the Dreyfus Affair.
Actually the family thinks, and a lot of people think, that he was killed because of it. The way he died is a very very strange accident—having the fumes of a chimney that actually suffocated him at night. There’s been testimony around the 1940s, an old man confessed that he was paid to block the chimney. There was never an inquiry because there was such a huge cataclysm in France and it divided the country in two and there were people who had duels about it. And Zola had to leave and go to England thinking he could never come back because he was going to be put in jail because of the positions he took to defend Dreyfus when Dreyfus was on Devil’s Island.
I know it is a fictionalized story of the relationship, but how much was based on fact and how did you weave the facts to create the fictionalized story?
This was the main interest and the biggest challenge to really spend a lot of time on research so that I would feel totally comfortable as if I were writing a contemporary film—to be totally familiar with their entourage, with their family, with their way of life, with the letters they wrote to each other. Then decide that I would stop my research—you can drown in research. You can go on and on forever because one thing always leads to another, and you become like obsessed.
So, at one point I decided to stop, and I decided that I was going to be free to tell the story the way I figured out—a little bit like Zola did in his book that was so painful for Cézanne. The weekend they spend together, which is the frame of the film, is completely an invention. I don’t think it ever happened. But what they talk about during that dreadful last rendezvous is based very much on the things I read about both of them and about their relationship This is exactly where my work as a writer was fascinating for me—to really imagine what these two men would have said to each other if they had that meeting, which they probably never did.
What I also loved imagining is, for instance, when you have the scene where Zola goes up the stairs and listens to that dreadful scene between Cézanne and his wife. It isn’t a violent scene, but it is sort of everyday life scene between a couple. And what I loved is writing that dialogue—in a way a banal dialogue—a sort of desperate exchange, but a banal dialogue. Then when Zola reads the part of the book that he stole from that scene, it becomes beautiful, what he does with it. That’s not my dialogue, that’s Zola’s dialogue. The way he makes them talk is so much more beautiful than the way they really did talk. That was to me exactly the key to what I was trying to do.
Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures