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“Zola Was a Humanist, Cézanne Was Hypersensitive”

Filmmaker, screenwriter and director Danièle Thompson is a leading figure of French cinema. We met with her as part of the release of her movie Cézanne and I in the United States on March 31. The film follows the turbulent friendship and rivalry between painter Paul Cézanne (played by Comédie Française actor Guillaume Gallienne) and writer Emile Zola (Guillaume Canet), who were both from Aix-en-Provence in Southern France.

France-Amérique: Why does your film swing between the characters’ conflicting feelings of love and resentment?

Danièle Thompson: I was fascinated by the passionate friendship (in both senses of the term) between Cézanne and Zola that I discovered rather late while reading an article, followed by biographies of both artists. I found it quite miraculous that their friendship lasted so long. It thrived on long-lasting childhood memories, and yet was damaged by various events in their lives. I was particularly interested in how their fates diverged: Zola grew up in poverty and rose to become a renowned author with a bourgeois lifestyle, whereas Cézanne was born into a bourgeois family and slipped into poverty.

Would it be right to say they had a toxic friendship, or does that smack of pop-psychology?

I would say it was a toxic friendship laced with tenderness. Cézanne was manic-depressive, and his personality and attitude could make other people feel rejected. At the same time, the feeling of being disliked and the rejection of his work by critics must have been horribly painful. He had to cope with a double rejection, by his peers and by his best friend. He truly admired Zola, despite being jealous of his success. In his eyes, Zola had become someone important, and lived like a member of the bourgeoisie. As for Zola, he was very fond of Cézanne, but not of his work. And yet there was something very intense between them. I read letters they wrote to each other. They are filled with such tenderness and intimacy, not dissimilar to love letters.

Who out of Cézanne and Zola do you find the most endearing?

Zola was a humanist, famed for having defended General Dreyfus, for his rigor, humanity and honesty. But his apparent blandness in the film may cause frustration. He seems all to ready to turn the other cheek, only to be better slapped! Unlike Zola, Cézanne was hypersensitive, obsessed with his paintings, and all in all quite indifferent to the rest of the world. The former immersed himself in city life, while the latter was only interested in his own landscape. In a scene cut from the final film, Zola tells Cézanne about the war in 1870. Cézanne retorts by pointing at the landscape, saying: “My war is a red roof and a blue sea. As Guillaume Gallienne quite accurately said: “Cézanne is an endearing character, but such a pain!” But I really love both of them, because broken friendships and artists missing out on a chance at success break my heart.

Watch the trailer: