Writer and director Danièle Thompson fills the opening credits sequence of her historical drama Cézanne and I — which opens at select New York cinemas today — with a curious collection of shots. Stacks of books cover a table. A painter’s pallette sits on mossy, leaf-covered ground. Papers lie scattered across a desk, with a large magnifying glass securing one stack. A table contains a bowl of whole and halved heirloom tomatoes, with their mottled red, brown, and white bodies arranged perfectly for a still life. Alone, these would be visual non-sequiturs, but the power of montage unites them in meaning as the tools of the film’s main characters, writer Émile Zola (Guillaume Canet) and painter Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne). Throughout the film, Thompson similarly juxtaposes the artists’ behaviors and outlooks to define the personalities behind their work, but the constant reliance on this device leads to narrative stagnation that cripples the story in its second half.
Thompson follows the duo’s relationship from childhood to death, but the title alone makes it clear that Cézane is the star. Gallienne plays the painter — a child of privilege who receives stipends from his parents well into adulthood — as a relentless provocateur. In any given scene, the wild-eyed Cézanne can switch from cunningly manipulating his closest friends to bristling with manic energy to exuding class and dignity. However, most of his time onscreen is devoted to ranting and raving with the gusto of a man unconcerned with social conventions, his long but thinning hair splayed about his head. Canet’s Zola pines for stability. Raised in poverty by a single mother, the writer pursues family and security above all else. He speaks of writing in very practical terms, describing it, often in lament, as something he does for survival. Zola eventually marries Cézanne’s former mistress, but their marriage hits a rough patch when she is unable to conceive, denying him the family unit that he craves.
Editing accentuates the dissonance between its main characters. Thompson and editor Sylvie Landra seamlessly execute match fades to manage jumps in time. As the adolescent artists and their friends discuss losing their virginity while walking down the street, the image blurs and then re-focuses on them as young adults situated in the same positions, flirting with passing girls. By traversing eras in seconds with pairings of images, Thompson shows the consistency with which Zola and Cézanne were inverses of each other.
These incessant comparisons make the final half of the film overwhelmingly stale. The dialogue constantly reminds us that these two friends represent different sides of the artistic coin. In their older incarnations, they chat in Zola’s antique-filled study, and Cézanne asks: “Your writing is so modern. Don’t all these old things weigh on you?” Zola answers: “They reassure me, in fact.” This exchange is just one of many examples of one character stating his perspective on a given issue and the other replying with his take.
There isn’t anything particularly novel about a film that pairs a semi-serious, upstanding individual with an irresponsible friend whose instability threatens to be the undoing of his more respectable companion. For instance, Bruce Robinson’s similarly titled Withnail and I turns 30 on April 10. The British cult comedy follows actors Marwood (Paul McGann) and Withnail (Richard E. Grant) as they go on a drunk and stoned ramble through London and the surrounding countryside. Robinson gives us many scenes where the two friends define themselves with their differing reactions to home invasion, eviction, and more. However, he also gives us the scene where, after the pair cause a disturbance in a proper tearoom, an addled Withnail screams the film’s iconic line: “We want the finest wines available to humanity, we want them here, and we want them now!” The humor sprinkled throughout this comparative character study is what makes the film so endearing and beloved. Cézanne and I could likewise use some levity to counteract the drudgery of point-by-point comparison.