Uncharacteristically prolific, Monegasque director Danièle Thompson has made a series of forgettable films that reach some kind of apex in her latest, Cézanne Et Moi. It’s a little mystifying to consider the struggles of some foreign directors, some of whom are incapable of securing even the most measly of U.S. distribution, while Thompson regularly churns out such maudlin exercises like Jet Lag (featuring Juliette Binoche, in what may be her worst performance if I could actually remember the film) and somehow manages to secure prominent shelf space at Blockbuster Video during the mid-aughts. Perhaps I should explain: regular trips to my local BV would always include the vision of numerous un-rented Jet Lag DVD cases with this remarkably unfortunate yet nevertheless kind of cute poster art as its cover. There’s something inexplicably fascinating about the way Jean Reno holds his cellphone to his cranium that made renting the film absolutely, positively necessary. The market for middle-brow entertainment thinly veiled as art house specialty is alive and well. It would certainly explain Drake Doremus’ career.
Anyway: Cézanne Et Moi. The film details the quote unquote contentious relationship between novelist Émile Zola (Guillaume Canet) and painter Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne). It begins with a tense meeting between the two and flashes back to formative moments in their relationship, going back to childhood and the struggles in achieving success in their craft. Fine. Structurally, there’s not much to quibble about in Cézanne Et Moi, insofar that its clear and concise and unfussy about its intentions. But where the film gets notably unclear is in its befuddling editing pattern: an opening montage that recounts Zola and Cézanne’s childhood strips away any inkling of ephemeral detail and replaces it with banal platitudes, all pieced together at a clip that would make Paul W.S. Anderson proud. It barely makes sense as a coherent cinematic object, only held together by trite and recognizable tropes of its genre. And as the film shuffles along at its illogical clip, you’ll recognize how telegraphed its design really becomes, wherein every flashback sequence is defined by its heated exchange, pivoting back to the present as a reprieve from all the histrionic displays.
It’s a collection of patterns, all realized without much visual bravado or self-examination. Which, for a film about a novelist and painter is… well, you know. The material here signals for a complicated portrait on the role of friendship in art, along with the blurry distinction that a novelist has between reality and fantasy. But Thompson is more concerned with arranging the picture for its theatrical qualities – and for that it doesn’t go beyond the obvious. She excels at writing pithy verbal exchanges and Canet and Gallienne are both certifiably Just Fine. Yet for a film about an artist coming to grips with his own inadequacies, it just comes across as so terribly inadequate.