Category Archive for: ‘Michael Ferguson’
Cezanne and I
Directed by Daniéle Thompson
This film is a little hard to follow. It is a good film and I liked it a lot. I think I would like to see it again. The problem is they way they have put it together. It starts out with Cezanne coming to meet his friend, Emile Zola, at his residence late in their lives. Then it begins flashing back to scenes from earlier in their lives going all the way back to the beginning of their friendship that started in a schoolyard brawl. Sometimes it flashes forward, then backward, then back to the opening scene, which one takes to be the “present.” Sometimes it is a little hard to tell who is who and what the connections are between the various people at these different times and in different settings. To the credit of the filmmakers they do place visual captions indicating the date and place of the changing scenes, but it is still hard to keep it all in your head as you watch it, since we did not experience these times and places. For example, I understand the difference between 1970 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and 1990 San Francisco very well, but between 1860 Aix en Provence, France, and 1880 Paris, I don’t have as good a conception. So flipping back and forth between these varying places and scenes can be disorienting. A second viewing would probably be very helpful. Another problem is that Emile Zola’s calls his wife Alexandrine, but Cezanne calls her Gabrielle, which seems to have been a “professional” name she used before she became Zola’s wife. Cezanne and “Gabrielle” apparently have a history predating her role as Emile Zola’s wife. It took me a while to catch on to that, so I didn’t realize they were talking about the same woman.
The film is very condensed and abbreviated, but then, how can you tell the story of two people and their relationship extending over more than forty years in less than two hours? There is a lot of ambivalence in this relationship. These two guys argue a lot. Sometimes they don’t seem to like each other very much, but they have a deep connection that transcends their many personal differences. It is a rather searching inward exploration of these two men. I began to realize that this is the only way for Cezanne to feel comfortable in a personal relationship. There needs to be antagonism. Cezanne was antagonistic and combative toward everyone. He was very probably borderline, with pronounced paranoia. It’s a wonder he didn’t go completely crazy. Probably his friendship with Zola and his relationship with Hortense, a young woman who posed for him in his later years and who bore two children with him, is all that kept him in one piece.
One noticeable deficiency in this film is the lack of emphasis on Cezanne’s paintings. He is said to have painted about 1000 paintings, most of which are in museums around the world. I saw a magnificent exhibit of Cezanne’s paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC in 2006. There must have been several hundred paintings in the exhibit. However, in this film, very few of his paintings appear. The film is not interested in his paintings; it is interested in presenting his personality and his relationship with Zola.
I’ve never read anything by Zola, so I don’t know much about him. The relationship depicted represents what we might see as a relic of the nineteenth century, that is, a close personal friendship between two men of considerable intimacy and emotional intensity. That kind of relationship is extremely rare these days in the United States outside of the gay community, but in the nineteenth century it was quite commonplace. I have written in other places about the changes in men’s relatedness over the last hundred years of so and the impact it has had on men’s lives and on society. You can find them posted on this website.1
The character of Cezanne emerges very well from this film. His art and the relationship between his person and his art do not. But the central theme of the film, namely the lifelong relationship between the two friends, Paul Cezanne and Emile Zola, is very well represented and probably works better without undue intrusion from the art of either man. You have to make decisions when you make a film and if you spend a lot of time exploring the artistic development of one man or both, then you have less time to explore their personal relationship. The filmmakers chose to explore the personal relationship, and they have accomplished their purpose very effectively. But unless you are French or steeped in French culture, you may need a second look before it will all gel and cohere.
- Review of Picturing men: A Century of Male Relationships in Everyday American Photography. By John Ibson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2002. Reviewed in the Journal of Homosexuality Vol. 55, No. 2, 2008.
Also, Was Abraham Lincoln Gay? Journal of Homosexuality 57:1124-1147, 2010.