“You all bore me shitless,” Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne) can be heard saying as he storms away from a table during a scene from “Cezanne et Moi,” which isn’t surprising given his fiery temperament, but warrants a double take considering his company includes Édouard Manet (Nicolas Gob) and his best friend Emile Zola (Guillaume Canet). As one the preeminent painters of the post-Impressionist era, Cézanne was never that much of a fan of the rules of perspective that governed most of his peers’ work at the time, yet in making a film about his development as an artist, writer/director Danièle Thompson embraces distance to observe just what an exciting period that he was a part of during the late 19th century, where his relationship to other artists, particularly the author Zola, with whom he had become friends as a boy, fueled a surge of creativity that would redefine the form.
Thompson, known for directing such contemporary comedies as “Avenue Montaigne” and “Jet Lag,” brings a feeling of immediacy to the period drama, which spans three decades in the relationship between Cézanne and Zola, whose fortunes shift radically over the years as well as their feelings towards each other before meeting up near the end of the century upon the publication of Zola’s novel “L’Oeuvre” (“The Masterpiece”), which the film posits that the painter took as a personal affront. While “Cezanne et Moi” recounts historical touchstones that will be familiar to admirers of the men’s work, it is less interested in suggesting specific defining moments for the two than the full sweep of the era and environment they were a part of, quietly hinting throughout at their influences in the world around them. Naturally, the production went to great lengths to recreate the moment in time, venturing out to Médan where Cézanne’s eye for landscapes evolved and finding ways to pull beauty of nature.
While Thompson was in New York recently, she took the time to talk about how she became interested in the friendship between two of France’s most famed artists, bringing vibrancy to a period piece through its structure, and how the late Mike Nichols nudged her towards giving the story the film treatment.
Of course I knew about these two men because I suppose everybody does, especially in France because they’re huge figures in our culture. But I was very surprised to find out not only that they were friends, but they had this very intense relationship ever since they were little children in Aix-en-Provence. I was intrigued that these two little boys were brought up in that religious school in a faraway province would become two of the most important men in the 19th century and had known each other so long and had this incredible correspondence. They wrote to each other – there’s a very thick book of their beautiful letters – and they actually managed to keep this friendship alive for so long and then suddenly broke up – I thought, well, there must be something behind that. It really made me think I should spend seven months in research to decide whether I was suddenly inspired to write my own point of view.
Is it true Mike Nichols might’ve given you a nudge?
Yes, I said to Mike at one of our wonderful lunches a few years ago, about a year before he passed away, that I was thinking about doing a screenplay [of this story], but maybe making it a play for the theater. And he said, “Don’t lock yourself on a stage.” And he was right because when you speak about Cezanne, you have to be outdoors.
Part of the joy of making this film was actually discovering the true places [where this story took place]. We shot exactly where Cezanne was painting, just outside of this cabana that you see in the film, or this little house that he rented where he spent a lot of nights so that he could catch the light of the sunset and the sundown. We managed to have permission to shoot in this area, which is very protected – they’re terrified of fire and is only allowed to be visited by appointment, but we managed to get permission to arrive with a film crew of 80 people and invade that place. We also became close to Zola’s great-granddaughter Martine, who let me shoot in the garden of Zola’s house, which she’s turned now into a museum that she’ll open soon. So I was very happy I was not locked into a theater stage and I could be free to run around these places for months.
You’ve said you didn’t want to mimic the look of Cezanne’s paintings exactly since in developing as an artist, he hadn’t yet figured out his visual signature, but how do you go about showing what he would see as an artist?
I created a big, big thick book of paintings from taking pictures at museums and other places of all the painters of the time – Manet, Monet, Degas and Berhe Morisot because this was really the environment I wanted to recreate, [not] trying to make a movie look like a Cezanne. [Instead] I wanted [him] to be surrounded by this atmosphere of the impressionists, even though Cezanne actually took his distance with the movement after a few years. The biggest influence actually was Caillebotte, who was actually considered a minor impressionist for a long time, but is becoming a big star himself as well in the last 30, 40 years. Caillebotte really inspired a lot of costumes, a lot of atmosphere and scenes by the water with little boats. There’s a lot in Manet and Monet as well. It’s a dream to live with these guys for a couple of years like I just did.
Your films as a director have always felt so contemporary, was it any different making a period piece?
I had written period films – “Queen Margot” and others – but I had never directed one and of course, I had little time. We shot the film in eight weeks, but actually it was important that I could have a long time to prepare the film. That was a great pleasure and also a big challenge because we wanted to be very, very close to the truth, even though I took all the freedom I wanted in the way I wanted to tell the story. We were very much seduced by the period. It was important to reproduce Zola’s handwriting, for instance [because] there’s little references to Zola’s literature in the film, but I also knew this is not a film about literature or about painting. It’s really about these two men and about artists, not about art.
I didn’t feel like doing a straight story from childhood to the end of the relationship, and the frame of the film, which is that they had this last weekend together [late in life], I invented completely. I decided they were going to see each other and have this conversation that they’d never had, so it very naturally for me implied these flashbacks because every time they talk, something from the past comes back to them. [It would] explain why they loved each other so much and why slowly life destroyed that friendship – their choices, the fact that one was poor and became rich and that one was rich and became a bum literally, the fact that one introduced his girlfriend to the other and he married her. I think it’s a miracle they remained friends for so long and of course, all these issues were the most interesting thing to me in the story, so I thought it was interesting to show right away that they’re old men and they still love each other, but then you go back to key scenes in their lives.
What it was like working with your two actors on performances that covered such a long span of time?
It was, of course, a problem shooting the film because this was not special effects – this was makeup we worked with and they had a long, long time [getting prepared] Sometimes, but very rarely, thank God, they had [scenes] where they were 60 at the beginning of the day and then they were 20 at the end. We tried to avoid that as much as possible, but we couldn’t all the time. But I think [the makeup] helped them a lot to go into the mood of each scene and to have to look of each scene, even though it’s a little tiresome to spend so much time in the makeup room. Once they came out of there, they were really in their character and was very important to make them feel the truth of the character at the time.
There’s always something of yourself in all the stories you write, so it is true that the process of being an artist and how you deal with success and with failure and how you deal with snobbism about your work or the fact that you’re ignored or appreciated. All these things that we live with as filmmakers, so this is something of course that obviously has an impact on the subject.
“Cezanne Et Moi” is now open in New York at the Sunshine Cinema and opens on April 7th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal and the Laemmle Pasadena Playhouse 7, among other theaters. A full list of theaters and dates are here.