The lifelong friendship between French painter Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne) and novelist Émile Zola (Guillaume Canet) centers this beautifully produced but dramatically wobbly epic. As the film tells it, Cézanne rescued young Zola from schoolyard bullies in Provence in 1852, creating a brotherly bond that lasted until Zola used his friend as a model for the suicidal painter in his 1886 novel L'Œuvre (The Masterpiece). As this fictionalized account opens, an enraged Cézanne arrives at Zola's home, ready to do battle over the novel, prompting a dizzying series of flashbacks to the duo's three-decade friendship.
Writer-director Danièle Thompson loosely acknowledges the major events of the period, including the Dreyfus affair, and alludes to the titanic changes taking place in the world of art -- Manet and Renoir are side characters -- but this is not a film to use as a study source for your next college exam. The history here is personal, with enormous (and repetitive) attention given to Cézanne's precarious financial state and his romantic longing for Zola's wife, Alexandrine (Alice Pol). The film gains power in the final third, particularly when the selfish Cézanne is called to account by both Alexandrine and his own wife, Hortense (Déborah François), in speeches so potent one wishes Thompson had chosen to view the great artist's lives through the eyes of the women who loved (and tolerated) them.