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History lessons seldom come with as much passion as they do in "Cézanne and I," French filmmaker Danièle Thompson's full-bodied look at the parallel lives of two of France's greatest artists.
The story begins in 1888 with the reunion of two old friends: the post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne) and the writer Emile Zola (Guillaume Canet). Through flashbacks, we see that the two met as boys, with Paul defending the immigrant Emile in a schoolyard fight. Later, as young men, they shared wine and the occasional woman in college with the brash Cézanne swooping in to woo women the shy Zola was too timid to court.
As the two men got older, their careers diverged. Zola found early success with his essays, and later with novels, though he spent his later years afraid his talents had peaked too young. Cézanne was rejected by the establishment art salons and was regularly running out of money relying on his wealthy father (Gérard Meylan) and, later, Zola's generosity.
Years later, tensions grew between the two when Zola wrote "The Masterpiece," a novel about a temperamental artist one modeled after Cézanne, though Zola admits some of the character's worst qualities came from the author himself.
Thompson lets the two Guillaumes loose with meaty conversations, where they argue about life and art and the intersection between the two. The performances are nicely matched, with Gallienne's blustering Cézanne pairing with Canet's more introspective Zola.
The way both artists treat the women is atrocious. Zola is chilly to his wife, Alexandrine (Alice Pol) one of the women Cezanne wooed first while lusting after a young servant, Jeanne (Freya Mavor). Cézanne keeps time with Hortense (Deborah François), his lover and model, but she complains that he'd rather love his painted image of her than the real thing.
The fact that Thompson ("Avenue Montaigne") doesn't comment on the mistreatment of these women, and implicitly waves off the artists' casual sexism, is the one major blemish on "Cézanne and I." Alas, it keeps an interesting movie from being a truly great one.
'Cezanne and I'
The intersecting, and conflicting, lives of the painter Paul Cezanne and the author Emile Zola are explored in this intriguing drama.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday, April 21.
Rating • R for language, sexual references and nudity.
Running time • 117 minutes; in French with subtitles.