Though I have long admired the work of post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne and novelist Émile Zola, I had no idea that the two artists had known each other since they were young boys and had an intense, volatile friendship that impacted heavily on their work. Danièle Thompson’s riveting new film, Cézanne et Moi, traces the parallel paths and the passionate friendship of Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne) and Zola (Guillaime Canet) throughout their lives. The two boys grew up in Aix-en-Provence. Émile was fatherless and poor while Paul came from a wealthy family. As young men, dreaming of glory and beautiful women, they left the south to conquer the art scene in Paris. Soon Émile had it all — success, money, and the perfect wife (Alice Pol), and he embraced the very bourgeoisie he mocked in his books. Meanwhile, Cézanne rejected the Parisian scene to focus only on his work, ignored by his peers and the establishment. I’ve admired filmmaker Danièle Thompson for decades (she was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing Cousin, Cousine, and has since written and directed many films including Queen Margot and Avenue Montaigne) and enjoyed talking to her about this gorgeous new film.
Danny Miller: What a fascinating story! Being the stupid American that I am, I have to admit that I had no idea Paul Cézanne and Émile Zola had this incredible friendship.
Danièle Thompson: Well, being the stupid Frenchwoman that I am, I didn’t know either! (Laughs.) One of the reasons that I got involved with this story was my utter astonishment that I had never known that these two guys had been such deep friends and had met as little boys in that faraway town in the south of France. And then these two little boys went on to become two of the major figures in the French cultural world of the 19th century. Of course, I had seen many paintings by Cézanne, and I had read books by Zola, but I thought, “My God, how is it possible that I never knew this?”
And so you began researching the story?
Yes. I was so intrigued by the fact that they had met so young and had actually stayed involved with each other until they were 48 and 49 years old which was pretty old for that time. I was shocked by my ignorance about it and started reading everything I could get my hands on. This was many years ago. I ended up making one film after the other but I always had it in my head that I wanted to take the time to work on this story. I knew that it would take a lot of time to really be able to swim in that century and get to the point where I felt really comfortable in it.
So you kept working on the script in between other projects?
Yes, and then about three years ago, I decided I was going to take the time to figure out whether there was a movie in there or not. I immersed myself in all of the extraordinary letters that exist between the two men — beautiful letters from their youth in which they were very passionate, almost love letters. And, of course, I read all the biographies of them, stunned that there was so little about the two of them together. Finally, I got to the point where I decided I had to stop the research, because you know you can drown in that — one thing always leads to another, you can get completely obsessed. Once I stopped, I felt free to write the story about them in the way that I wanted, with my point of view.
I can see how easy (and fun!) it would be to get lost in that research.
Oh yes. In a way I almost felt like I was literally living in that century. And, you know, it was kind of refreshing with everything that’s going on today!
What’s so amazing about their story is how many other great artists figure in — people like Pissarro, Renoir, Morisot, and so many others. Do you think it’s because they naturally gravitated toward people with similar artistic passions or was there was something specific about their time that produced so many amazing artists?
It’s true that there was a lot going on artistically at that time, especially in Paris. I remember when I first lived in New York in the late 1960s, that city seemed like it was the center of lots of things happening in the art world. It was definitely like that in Paris in their day. What I loved about looking at all of them at that time is that they were these incredibly vibrant young men. Today they are mostly statues of old men with big white beards and we forget about how in their youth they were very much the counterculture of their time. These people helped to create this burst of freedom and all that comes with it. The women took their corsets off to swim in the nude, everyone was sleep with each other, they longed for acclaim but had no money, they were jealous of each other but really admired each other’s work, the women were trying to make their way as artists in a man’s world, it was really a fascinating time.
And, like so many artists, they weren’t always appreciated as much while they were alive.
It’s true. I was so fascinated to learn about Cézanne. I think you tend to know more about writers from their work than you do painters. I knew a fair bit about Zola but very little about Paul Cézanne, not even that he was the son of a rich bourgeois family or that he had bipolar disease — of course the name for that didn’t exist back then. Cézanne was really a very difficult man. He didn’t wash, he didn’t care how he looked or smelled, he basically lived like a bum and had very little money even though he grew up with so much. Camille Pissarro’s great-grandchildren have this wonderful oral information they learned from their grandmother about Cézanne and how when he used to come to dinner at the Pissarros, the children would hold their noses because he smelled so bad!
Fascinating how, considering their backgrounds, Cézanne and Zola kind of switched their sensitivities as they got older, each leading the opposite kind of life than you’d expect.
Yes, the paths that Cézanne and Zola chose when they grew up were so different. It’s a kind of miracle that they did remain friends for such a long time because they exactly went in opposite directions in their choices of life.
I had no idea that Zola’s book, L’Oeuvre or The Masterpiece, was so much about Cézanne. It’s easy to see how pissed that made him.
Absolutely. It’s not one of Zola’s most well known books, I only read it when I was working on the screenplay, but when you read it you can very clearly understand why Cézanne was so appalled — there is so much in that novel that comes so close to the things they shared with each other, it must have made Cézanne go crazy. I used a lot of things from that book — such as the scene at the dinner when Cézanne overhears people saying terrible things about him, that was based on a scene from the book.
I was especially intrigued by Zola’s wife, Alexandrine. What a fascinating character who had such an intense involvement with both men. I’d love see a whole movie just about her life.
She is totally fascinating, I’m so glad you felt that. Alexandrine was an extraordinary woman — I agree that there’s another movie to be made about her.
Alice Pol was so great in that part, you should make that your next film!
I thought about it, believe me! So interesting how that character moved from being this girl from a rather low background who then became Madame Zola and really took the part of being a star writer’s wife very seriously. She loved it. The thing that happened two years after the end of my film — Madame Zola received an anonymous letter telling her that her husband had been leading a double life and had two children with Jeanne, the woman we see briefly in the film. Alexandrine went crazy — she went to Jeanne’s house and was absolutely desperate and threatened her and her husband, but he somehow managed very cleverly to keep both women in his life!
Which is pretty amazing.
When he died — and the family thinks he was actually murdered because of his involvement in writing about the Dreyfuss Affair — she went to see Jeanne and she proposed adopting the children so that the name of Zola would go on. And that’s what happened!
Wow. And there are descendants of those children today?
Yes. Martine Zola, who is his great-granddaughter, allowed me to shoot the film at Zola’s actual house which they’re now turning into a museum. You should take your family to Aix-en-Provence and visit the places there where Cézanne and Zola lived and worked, it’s gorgeous.
I’d love to!
So there is now a family called Zola who are descendants of the children Émile had with Jeanne. Alexandrine was quite a character for that time. Can you imagine?
Not even today! Did she ever find the child that she had given up years earlier?
No, sadly, they eventually found out out that this child had died quite young. But Alexandrine’s life is amazing, she’s a real heroine in many ways. And Alice Pol is a great actress — who until now was mostly known for comedy.