Artists are a famously difficult bunch: if they’re not wreaking havoc as they wrestle their demons into something fit for public consumption, then they’re plundering everyone and everything around them in service of their precious art. It may be edifying to admire the result, but would you want to grow up with one? Writer-director Danièle Thompson’s Cezanne et Moi traces the decades-long friendship of the writer Emile Zola and the painter Paul Cezanne, from their schoolboy days in Aix-en-Provence, to their great falling out over Zola’s use of his friend as material, and beyond.
The former is a poor immigrant with a longing for bourgeois comfort and moral clarity, the latter an angry young man eager to reject his comfortable upbringing (and just about everything else) as he charts his own path. Guess who has a happier time of it?
The film is sumptuous and sensuous to behold but a bit chilly on the heart and hazy on the mind, thanks no doubt to the prickly protagonists and the breadth of coverage. Still, there are worse things for a film to do than ask something of its viewers as it offers up its visual treats.
Matthew Lickona: Is this a film about the artists or a film about their friendship?
Danièle Thompson: It’s much more about their friendship. That’s part of the reason why I tried not to show many of Cezanne’s paintings until the end, and not to use too much of Zola’s literature. The statues of these men are very well known. I wanted to tell the story of the struggle to keep a friendship alive.
ML: What about that friendship intrigued you to the point of making a movie?
DT: It was a strange thing to discover that two boys who met at school in a small southern town would become two of the greatest figures of the 19th Century and would remain friends for 40 years in spite of the different and difficult paths they chose, and that they would then break up. The breakup really spoke to me; it told me there must be a lot of unknown details. I decided I would take the time to read, to go deep into the intimacy between these two men, and find out if there was some dramatic aspect that I could turn into a movie. There is a very thick and beautiful exchange of letters between them from the age of 18 to the breakup, and there was definitely something that happened after the publication of Zola’s book The Masterpiece, and just as Zola felt free to use his friend’s life for his book, I felt free to invent a meeting between them after its publication as the frame of the film.
ML: At one point, Zola says to Cezanne, “I can’t remember why I loved you.” Why do they remain friends as long as they do?
DT: They made it survive the way that you do to save something from your childhood. When you read the letters of their youth, it’s almost like they’re love letters. They reflect things we all know from experience: when you’re in school or at university, and you have this best friend, the person who is more important in your life than your parents, who is something that keeps you alive. And you cannot imagine that that will dilute. But Cezanne was not easy to live with, and Zola never actually admired his paintings, and he was rejected and ignored by both the establishment and his fellow artists. Whereas Zola, after the age of 26, became very successful and important as a writer. To keep it alive as long as they did was an incredible challenge, and that is the story of the film.
ML: You do a fine job of pulling the audience’s sympathies in both directions. Where do your own lie?
DT: That’s very hard to say. But I knew quite a lot about Zola when I started writing the story, because you discover so much about someone when you read their work. It’s much harder to find out something private about a painter from their work. I was familiar with the incredible change in his work, where at the end he was far beyond the revolution of the Impressionists. But it was fascinating to look into his life and get to love him in spite of everything. Maybe he’s the one I love the most, because he’s the one I discovered the most.
ML: Tell me about your use of Zola’s wife Alexandrine.
DT: It’s known that Cezanne introduced her to Zola, back when her name was Gabrielle. And there are some people who think she was a model for Cezanne, and that they might have had an affair, though there is no proof. And Cezanne was the witness at Zola’s wedding. And it’s true that after she became Alexandrine, she did not like Cezanne to come and stay with them, and put his paintings in the attic as soon as he left. I thought all these true elements were too good not to use for my story, to build something more intimate.