“With you I never know if I’m dealing with a dog, a cobra or a butterfly,” the writer Émile Zola (portrayed by Guillaume Canet) says out of frustration and impatience to the Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne) in “Cézanne et Moi.”
The film, an intimate, searching portrait of the turbulent friendship between the two geniuses directed by Danièle Thompson (“Avenue Montaigne”), completely avoids the tone of pious reverence typically adopted in stories about famous artists and writers. Instead it focuses on the insecurity, competitiveness and complicated love lives of these two ambitious men of opposite temperament. Anyone who has spent much time in artistic and literary circles will recognize that this is how it is even today.
“Cézanne et Moi” begins in 1888 in Médan, northwest of Paris, when Zola, then in his late 30s, was a world-famous author and the reputation of the late-blooming Cézanne was gathering steam. It then immediately flashes back to 1852, when they were rambunctious schoolboys, with Cézanne the daredevil who took Zola the follower under his wing. The movie restlessly jumps around in time, cramming almost more information than you can take in. And it is so eager not to come off as a lecture in art history the film presumes a high level of knowledge of French culture and history — more than most American viewers might possess.
Mr. Gallienne, who dominates the film, gives an electrifying portrait of Cézanne as a scruffy, driven wild man who even as his career seems stalled, declares, “I’ll never stop painting; I’ll die painting.” Charismatic but scary, flashing a furious, wide-eyed glare that could turn people to stone, Cézanne is a foul-mouthed misogynistic boor and selfish voluptuary who shocked polite society with his profanity and who in his later years was obsessed with his declining virility.
Although Cézanne played to the hilt the role of contemptuous bohemian rebel, he came from a wealthy family from which he was largely estranged. Zola, who was born in poverty, assiduously worked his way up the social ladder. Paradoxically, his raw realistic novels shocked the very bourgeoisie he professed to loathe but whose approval he eagerly courted.
“Cézanne et Moi” offers a pungent, demystifying portrait of the rowdy late-19th-century Parisian art world where famous painters and poets mingled and jostled for position at dinner parties and art openings filled with shoptalk, backbiting and intrigue.
It also makes a point of showing the profound self-doubt that led Cézanne to attack his canvases in fits of rage and Zola to consider destroying his manuscripts. Creativity for both men, who were acutely aware of their diminishing powers as they aged, is more agonizing than ecstatic.
There is an abundance of gorgeous outdoor scenes, many set in Aix-en-Provence, where Cézanne is shown at work amid the fullness of nature. And famous paintings of the period are alluded to both in the dialogue and in shots that evoke the imagery of Manet’s masterpiece, “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe.”
Mr. Canet’s Zola, who resembles William Hurt in one of his more prim, buttoned-up roles, seems miscast as the author who maintains an unswerving loyalty to Cézanne in his life if not in his writing.
The friendship is all but shattered with the publication of Zola’s novel “L’Oeuvre,” whose barely disguised portrait of Cézanne as a “castrated, defeated, pathetic loser,” in the painter’s words, hurts him to the quick. Even at the best of times, Cézanne views Zola as a timid romantic fool, at odds with his literary persona as a brutal social realist.
Instead of trying to explain Cézanne’s vision and its evolution, the movie shows it in a remarkable final montage of his paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire, the ridge overlooking Aix-en-Provence that captivated his imagination. As Cézanne puts it in the film: “I like to paint the fluidity of air, the heat of the sun, the violence of the rocks.”