#FrancisOnFilm: Cezanne et Moi

27 April 2017

What makes a friend? Cézanne et Moi is the story of the friendship between Émile Zola and Paul Cézanne. It is also a complex commentary on friendship itself: what friends owe each other, what friends should do for each other, and what breaks the bonds of friendship.

The film may be difficult to find; it’s in limited release now and reportedly will be out on DVD by the end of the summer. But it’s very much worth looking for, both for what it says about friendship and for its beauty as a film. Guillaume Gallienne (as Cézanne) and Guillaume Canet (as Zola) give terrific performances. Danièle Thompson’s directing portrays scenes of 1860's Paris in the tones they were painted and the landscape of Provence as compellingly beautiful and inspirational for Cézanne throughout his life. At the end, the view of Mont Sainte-Victoire gradually fades into one of Cézanne’s most well-known paintings.

Cézanne and Zola grew up together in Aix-en-Provence, bonded by their unconventional interests in the arts and their response to the bullying of others. They were part of a circle of dissenting artists in Paris during the 1860s and supported one another during their early efforts to gain recognition. They increasingly diverged, however, as Zola achieved economic success from his writing and Cézanne left Paris to return to Provence embittered by his failures. Zola’s novel L’Oeuvre, published in 1886, portrayed the life of a painter who, despondent that his creativity had not been recognized, hanged himself in front of his final painting. Cézanne took the novel as a cruel mockery and their friendship never recovered.  

The film’s title, Cézanne et Moi, signals the inequality that was part of the trouble between the two friends. So does the framing of the film: a visit from Cézanne to Zola when they were in their 50s, in which Zola sits calmly behind a grand desk in his elegant study and Cézanne rants about Zola’s exploitation of him in the novel. One of the subtle themes in the film is the corrosive effect of inequality on friendship, from Cézanne’s family’s wealth in contrast to the poverty of Zola’s widowed mother, to Zola’s economic success and widespread recognition, and—particularly meanly—to the infertility of Zola’s marriage in comparison to Cézanne’s satisfaction as a father.

One of the most intense moments of the film is a dinner party held by the Zolas at which Cézanne was a guest. Cézanne behaves very badly—spurred by what he believes is a profound lack of respect from everyone else in the room, not least Zola. He leaves in anger, only to come back to sit on stairs outside below an open window. There, he hears Zola and his guests mocking him, even commenting that when Cézanne leaves his paintings will go back up into the attic. While he’s sitting on the stairs, Cézanne is also joined by Zola’s elderly mother, who has come outside because she is having difficulty breathing. He tenderly helps her out of her bodice and it remains clear in the movie how much he cares for her and how much Zola recognizes and appreciates his care and its importance to the vestiges of their friendship.

Zola’s publication of the novel L’Oeuvre was a final blow to their friendship, despite all the other bonds that had held them together. Cézanne was deeply wounded by how he was portrayed in the novel as a failure who could only kill himself as a means to artistic integrity. But his hurt went further: he felt used by his friend. In drawing on aspects of his personality and their relationship, Cézanne thought, Zola had treated him not with respect but as an object to be manipulated for Zola’s own purposes. Zola replies that the artist in the novel wasn’t Cézanne, but a fictional character drawn from many different experiences. For Cézanne, this doesn’t matter; what matters is that he had been used by his friend without permission and in a way he found deeply wounding. (Some say that you are friends or family of writers at your risk, others regard fiction as just that—as the author Colm Tóibín writes about many favorites of Irish literature.)

There’s an ironic comparison here, between the work of a novelist and Cézanne’s own artistic practice: it’s never fully clear in the film whether Cézanne respects and seeks consent from the models who pose for him in the nude. It’s also never clear whether Cézanne’s own use of his friends or family in paintings was the subject of concern to them. A final irony in the film is the treatment of women by both Zola and Cézanne, including Zola’s long-term relationship with one of his wife’s servants who became the mother of his children—a relationship urged on by Cézanne’s flaunting of his success as a father.

Philosophical theories of friendship harken back to Aristotle’s distinction between friendships of pleasure, utility, and virtue. Friends of pleasure share enjoyment of common pastimes; there’s an element of this in the childhood play of Cézanne, Zola, and their third friend, Batistin Baille. The film depicts sunny afternoons of swimming in the river Aix—reportedly memorialized in Cézanne’s many paintings of bathers.

Friendships of utility are rooted in common benefits: the friendships of university students seeking mutual academic success, or of businessmen (and less frequently women) supporting one another as they rise through the ranks. This kind of friendship perhaps best characterizes the relationship between Cézanne and Zola as young artists in Paris—but also reveals its fragility with their growing estrangement and what Cézanne regards as the ultimate of misuse and disrespect.

Friendships of virtue, according to Aristotle, occur when friends admire each other for their characters. In Cézanne et Moi, one can also see the risks of this type of friendship: as Cézanne becomes increasingly resentful, Zola admires him less; and as Zola becomes increasingly bourgeois in how he lives, Cézanne admires him less. Other writers about friendship, such as the feminist Marilyn Friedman (What Are Friends For? Feminist Perspectives on Personal Relationships and Moral Theory) explore the importance of mutual care to friendship and the tensions that may arise when people who care for one another deeply also come to judge each other as morally flawed.

Near the end of his life, Zola wrote one of the most famous journalistic protests of all times: J’accuse!. The piece protested the anti-Semitism of France of the time, government secrecy and corruption, and the court-martial of Alfred Dreyfus. Zola was himself charged with criminal libel as a result of J’accuse! and may even have been murdered in its aftermath. In the final scenes of Cézanne et Moi, Zola returns to Aix where he is greeted by a crowd about the Dreyfus affair. Cézanne’s reaction both illustrates the depth of their estrangement and pushes the question of whether he ought, morally, to have recognized the virtues of his former friend no matter how he had been mistreated.