The motto of Cezanne et Moi could be taken from Jay Parini's biography of Gore Vidal: Every Time a Friend Succeeds, Something Inside of Me Dies.
Writer Emile Zola (the William Hurt-like Guillaume Canet) and the post-impressionist Paul Cezanne (the Jonathan Pryce-like Guillaume Gallienne) were schoolboy pals in Aix en Provence. Zola was the poor half-Jewish son of an Italian laborer. Cezanne was the son of a snobbish banker. The way it's told here, Cezanne protected Zola from bullies in the schoolyard, and thus began a long, sometimes lopsided friendship.
Cezanne had no fear of women. Zola was tended by his mom and plagued with impotence. Cross-pollination and mutual fandom began their friendship. They gave each other mutual support, in the days when Cezanne couldn't even get accepted at the Salon de Refuses, and Zola was so poor he was eating sparrows caught on the street.
Cezanne is depicted as an impossible man, not quite housebroken, moaning about Ingres and picking fights. Zola becomes bourgeoise, stultified with wealth from his successes Nana and Germinal. Then comes the major quarrel between them:Cezanne believed that Zola's novel L'Oeuvre was a travesty of Cezanne life, and a ransacking of their mutual past.
From a cinematic standpoint, it's easier to visualize what Cezanne did than to dramatize a man sitting in a room scribbling. The director Daniele Thompson keeps us on Cezanne 's side as an injured party, ratted out by a friend. She makes us fear for his canvasses as artifacts, cut up by bourgeois louts, left to sit outside by a door, or flung out of a window, to be poked out of a tree with sticks like a broken kite. Cezanne never nearly had the success Zola did in life. But here he has the real triumph: shots of the painter's favorite subject, Mont Sainte-Victoire and the red dirt and ravines around it still look like the world-famous paintings.
The historical back and forth wears out this film. Thompson (Queen Margot, The 'Mad' Adventures of Rabbi Jacob) can't quite differentiate the characters in the background, blurring the women in the two men's lives. At best, she grasps the sense of those periods in life when failure has you captive and friends cannot be tolerated. At worst, the film is like a prestigious form of Neil Simon self-seriousness.