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Interview with Danièle Thompson, Director of Cézanne et Moi
Cézanne et Moi traces the parallel paths of the lives, careers and passionate friendship of post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne and novelist Emile Zola.

NEW YORK, NY.- How did you come across the idea to make this film, which seems so different from the others - mostly comedies - in your filmography?

Fifteen years ago, I read an article about how Cézanne and Zola were friends since childhood, before eventually growing apart. I must admit that I had never heard about this rift. It intrigued me. So I started reading biographies about them. I reread texts by Zola which I had forgotten, looked at paintings by Cézanne which I didn’t know. There was a dramatic element to their falling out which went beyond mere anecdote. Each time I finished a film, I wanted to try to take up their story but was told “No, do a comedy. It’s what you know how to do.” So I did a comedy, then another, and another. Until IT HAPPENED IN SAINT-TROPEZ, which was not the hit I’d hoped for. The reaction to that film destabilized me a bit. So, out of pure pleasure, I submerged myself in the lives of Cézanne and Zola, not knowing whether I’d find subject matter for a film. I read and read, took tons of notes. I was absolutely fascinated by everything I read, by everything I learned.

Because I was entering the hearts of these people, I was entering their youth. When we talk about Cézanne, Hugo or Renoir nowadays, we imagine remarkable old men with white hair. But I discovered young men on the way to becoming something. Men in their intimacy, in their daily lives, which were anything but remarkable. They weren’t legends, they weren’t icons, just young men with friends, problems, dreams, weaknesses and hopes…

They didn’t live that long ago, and we have plenty of texts and testimonies that are rich and vibrant. With the help of Jean-Claude Fasquelle, whose grandfather was Zola's editor, I met Martine Leblond-Zola, Emile’s great-granddaughter. I submerged myself in what Cézanne and Zola wrote and what was written about them. I followed the paths they trod, both literally and figuratively. I consulted Zola’s manuscripts at the Bibliothèque Nationale. Seeing words crossed out by his own hand was so moving. I went to museums, observing with a fresh eye the paintings that connected me to the texts, taking pictures of the ones that spoke to me, on the walls, in books, on the internet. I compiled albums with all these images and documents. I felt like I was living in the nineteenth century. Cézanne and Zola became my family. Then one day, I felt ready to undertake the adventure. I decided to tell their story as I imagined it. My albums took on a life of their own. I started writing. At first I just wanted to write a synopsis, but I soon realized I was writing the film.

What is it that touches you the most in this story? In the relationship between Cézanne and Zola?
Everything. The story has many levels to it and that’s what fascinates me. It’s about two friends who throughout their lives try to remain the childhood friends they once were, but no longer are. It’s as strong as a love story, if not more so. Like they say in the film, friendship is harder than love. Because there are no reference points, no rules or precise definitions. Stories of friendship can be very deep, painful and ambiguous too. Because after their teen years, they started sharing money, women, obsessions, ambition, the difficulty of wanting to be an artist. It’s the second aspect that moves me. It’s truly the heart of the subject. How do you accomplish your destiny as a writer or painter and stay friends? What is it like when one succeeds and the other doesn’t? When one can admire the other, but not vice versa. What’s interesting are these destinies which crisscross.

A son of poor parents who becomes a wealthy bourgeois, established and recognized. And the son of wealthy, bourgeois parents who becomes marginalized by his poor, bohemian lifestyle. He made nothing from his painting, lived with a woman he wouldn’t marry. His only obsession was his art. And just when one wonders if his inspiration hasn’t run dry, the other finally starts getting noticed and making a name for himself. One writes his greatest work from 25 to 50, and the other finds his way as the precursor of modern art, at the age of 50. Their lives went in opposite directions.

Do you necessarily become a “prisoner of the truth” when you take on famous people who really did exist?
Yes, of course. As I was doing research, I wondered whether I could take enough liberties to make a film. But it turns out that one of the most plausible explanations of their growing apart is Zola’s book The Masterpiece. Zola’s inspiration was Cézanne, their youth and friendship, their obsessions and discussions. But he also did what novelists do with the truth: he took liberties with their lives, with the art scene, creating situations that weren’t entirely true, if at all. If he could take those liberties, so could I. For example, Cézanne introduced Zola to the woman who would become Zola’s wife. Rumor had it that she might once have been Paul’s mistress. So I said to myself: “All right, she was!”

The film’s main thread is the “last encounter” between Cézanne and Zola in Médan in 1888. Did it really take place?
Maybe!(laughter) Something wild happened when I was working on the script. Even though Zola’s 1886 novel The Masterpiece marked the end of their friendship, and the last known letter from Cézanne to Zola, the one read aloud in the film, in which he “thanks” him for the book, also dates from 1886, I decided to make 1888 the film’s central reference point. It was an important year for both of them. Cézanne’s father died, which meant that Paul suddenly had money. And a few months before his father’s death, Paul finally married Hortense. Meanwhile in the Zola household, 1888 marked the arrival of Jeanne, the young laundry maid. This was major upheaval. Emile was so orderly, and here he falls in love and starts leading an almost official double life. So I imagined, despite what all the historians think, that they met in 1888, and that Cézanne came to Médan one last time for a last explanation.

When the script was almost finished, I went to Aix to see the places I had described without having really seen them. There I met Michel Fraisset, the curator of Cézanne’s last workshop, the one he used last for years of his life and which anyone can visit. It’s a very moving place, with its wicker baskets (only the apples date from today), his smock, dotted with paint. He asked me: “Do you know Cézanne’s last letter to Zola?” “Yes, the one all the historians talk about.” “No, a letter that was sold at Sotheby’s three months ago.” I was reeling. “No, I never heard about it.” `

A letter had been sold at Sotheby’s for $17,000 three months prior (two years ago). A letter from 1887 in which Cézanne thanks Zola for The Earth, his next novel after The Masterpiece. The letter ends with “I am going to come see you.” In 1887! A full year after the last known letter. Isn’t that extraordinary? My dramatic license was suddenly plausible. What I imagined may really have happened! That said, even if they did see each other, we don’t know what they said, so the screenwriter’s inspiration necessarily comes into play. But an imagination that owes a lot to Zola’s texts, Cézanne’s letters, Zola’s responses, various people’s testimonies, the memoirs of Vollard, the art dealer who helped establish Cézanne’s reputation… it was fascinating to blend it all together, to juggle real-life stories with the dialogue I gave them.

In fact, you don’t take sides with one or the other…
I fell in love with both of them! As Guillaume Gallienne says: “Cézanne is really “charm-mean!” He’s a pain in the ass who always goes too far. These are two artists for whom their obsession with work; the work they want to accomplish, takes precedence over everything else.

How do you explain that Zola misunderstood Cézanne, even though he defended the Avant Garde of the time, the Impressionists, Manet…
Between the ages of 26 and 30, Zola was a marvelous art critic. He defended the Impressionists when everyone else spat on them. He dedicated an article to Cézanne, but did not mention him in the article! He loved his friend, he cheered him on, and he figured he would make it, but in his heart he thought he’d never make it. Furthermore, as time went by, Zola’s tastes changed, they became more academic, more conformist (just look at his house, full of dusty antiques!), and at the age of 48 - old age at the time! – he wrote an article in which he thoroughly repudiated the Impressionists. Moreover, you need to realize that it was only in the last ten years of his life that Cézanne painted what would make him part of history, and at the beginning of that period (Zola died four years earlier than Cézanne), they no longer saw each other. Moreover, Cézanne - like all their artist friends at the time, other than Pissarro - was anti-Dreyfusard. Even if they did meet, would Zola have understood Cézanne? Was he still open to that? What he was writing then had nothing to do with what he wrote when he was 25. Cézanne only began to be more or less recognized at the very end of his life. When Zola died, his wife Alexandrine sold everything, and his Cézannes went for next to nothing. When Caillebotte died and left his entire collection to the Musée du Luxembourg, they took everything except… the Cézannes. They didn’t want them! That is why all the most beautiful Cézannes are abroad.

When writing, did you wonder which actors would be able to play these real people?
I tried not to think about it! It would have stopped me in my tracks. In fact, I had to find actors who could resemble them more or less, who could look forty, and at the same time juvenile enough to play younger characters, and who were actors with whom we could finance the project. That’s a lot of issues. I only started thinking about it toward the end of the writing, and the first actor I thought of was Guillaume Gallienne. Since AVENUE MONTAIGNE, I really wanted to work with him. I saw him as more of a Zola, because I imagine him more intellectual than down-to-earth. I gave him the screenplay to read. He called me and said: “I want to play Cézanne”. And added: “If you like, let’s do a reading, and you’ll see if I can really be Cézanne.” That’s what we did, and I never again had any doubts. He can play anything! So I had to find my Zola, and Cécile Felsenberg, who is both their agents, advised me to give the screenplay to Guillaume Canet. He said yes right away.

In your opinion, what makes Canet the ideal Zola and Gallienne the ideal Cézanne, today?
For me, the ideal actor is the actor I want, and who wants to make the film as much as I do. If an actor says: “I’m not sure, I don’t really feel it…” I immediately drop him. I believe deeply in instinct, and I don’t like the idea of having to convince them. In this case the enthusiasm of the two Guillaumes was immediate. It’s true, there aren’t many character roles in France, and that must have sounded exciting to them. They both brought me a lot. I was lucky and delighted to have the two of them for this film.

It’s true you forget them very quickly, you no longer see anything other than the characters they play. They are two actors who do not seem to come from the same school. How did you work with them?

Well, a lot of the screenplay is based on their differences. But actually, I decided to forget about that while I was working with them. They were my two actors, and I saw very well what I could get out of the one and the other. What really pleased me is that when they saw the finished film, separately, they were truly amazed by each other, as if they had so thoroughly become their characters that they didn’t notice it on location. And what is more, they are both directors in their own right. I didn’t want to think about that too much either, or it could have blocked me. In fact, I had two actors who were good listeners, who were both nervous about taking up such a challenge. They both wanted to do their best, they both always wanted to do one more take. They both gave me the feeling that they had perfect confidence in me, and I felt very good in their company.

In your opinion, what is the greatest asset of one and the other?
The both have an immense actor’s instinct. Guillaume Canet instinctively felt that he had to play his ‘iconic’ character very simply and soberly. On the other hand, Guillaume Gallienne instinctively felt that he was dealing with a madman – today Cézanne would be classified ‘bipolar.’ He would fly into furious rages, and a few seconds later seem to have forgotten all about them. Even though they had different educations, even though they come from different “milieux,” had different careers, and play very different characters, they both have the same discipline, the same tastes and indeed the same obsessions with their work.

What I felt both actors had, aside from their very obvious talent, was their considerable experience, their great concentration and great desire to achieve what I wanted from them. Neither one of them came on set whistling. They both have endurance, perseverance and obstinacy in their search for what they need to do, which is magnificent and rare.

Their names are both Guillaume. Wasn’t there a risk of your instructions getting confused when they were together on set?
I thought of that a lot before the shoot and it did worry me a little. But once they were on set, there were never any misunderstandings. They always knew whom I was talking to (laughter).

Was this film hard to finance?
These days no film is easy to finance. Especially a “period” film, a film that is different from your run-of-the-mill projects, and from my own previous films, which can frighten the decision-makers. But the man of my life, Albert Koski, labored personally and passionately to make this film possible. It was a great joy to work together on this atypical project that was so close to both our hearts. And he was able to embark Pathé on the adventure, and others too who participated in the production. And he was also able to communicate to the crew enthusiasm equal to his own.

The structure of the film is rather scattered, almost “impressionist.” Was that already in the screenplay?
Yes, with the encounter in Médan that serves as a ‘main thread,’ except that… in the end it’s no longer the same scattered effect! Once we were editing the scenes that we shot, the finish was no longer exactly the same. I worked a lot with my editor, Sylvie Landra, for about six months. What we did was almost a rewrite of the film. That is the mystery – and beauty of the editing process.

You filmed on a lot of real locations…
We shot most of the scenes that were supposed to take place in Paris in Moulins – after all, it was much simpler! But yes, we did shoot quite a bit in the places where the story actually did happen. And shooting in places so steeped in history was very emotional, not only for the actors, but for the rest of the crew as well. Thanks to Martine Leblond-Zola, we were authorized to shoot in Zola’s garden at Médan… and in the laundry room, where Zola watches Jeanne iron. We could have shot inside the house too, but there is a train that goes by every four minutes!

We also shot in Cézanne’s father’s house, at Jas de Bouffan. We recreated the frescos he had painted and that today are in the Petit Palais, and they decided to keep them! It is soon going to be restored and made into a museum. On the upper floor, where Cézanne painted, they have reconstructed his atelier, where we see him paint Vollard’s portrait – in fact, the portrait was actually painted in Paris. He didn’t build a new atelier until he inherited his father’s money, the Atelier des Lauves, which was then in the middle of the country, but is today in the middle of town. We were permeated by all those places. Not to mention the Bibémus quarries that have remained exactly the same as when Cézanne knew them. His hut too has remained intact. His pots and brushes are still there. He often slept there to be able to catch the light of dawn. It is a magical spot. All that was obviously very moving – and inspiring.

Exactly. In a film like this, light is very important. How and why did you choose to work with Jean-Marie Dreujou?
This was a very different film from the ones I had made. I wanted to call myself into question, to change crews. Jean-Jacques Annaud had spoken to me about Jean-Marie, whose work I liked a lot. I met with him. We got along very well right off the bat. And aside from his talent, he is a marvelous man – and that is important, because you’re very close to your director of photography on a shoot. We spoke a lot. I showed him all the documentation I had collected. I didn’t want the light to be “Cézanne-like.” I didn’t want people to say “That looks like a Cézanne.” I watched some films again that had marked me and that took place in the same period. Pialat’s VAN GOGH; Renoir’s LE DÉJEUNER SUR L’HERBE, obviously; Tavernier’s A SUNDAY IN THE COUNTRY; Jane Campion’s THE PIANO and PORTRAIT OF A LADY. And also Christopher Hampton’s CARRINGTON, even if it does take place a bit later, because I remember the air of intimacy inside the house, as compared to images filmed outside. I wanted the light to be different in Paris, Médan and Provence. That didn’t take much effort. The light in Provence is one of the most beautiful in the world. And especially since we had magnificent weather.

What kind of instructions did you give your other collaborators about costumes, sets and make-up?
I spoke about the project with Catherine Leterrier, who created the costumes, from the first day I worked on it, because I like her a lot and she has tons of talent. I showed her all the documentation I had gathered. Photos of dresses, ensembles, ambiences. Very well-dressed girls, and others more casually. A color. A hat. A street… And I shared those albums with the entire crew, with Jean-Marie Dreujou, with Michèle Abbe, the set designer, with Dominique Colladant, in charge of makeup and aging effects. Those albums inspired us all during our preparation and shoot. They were fascinated by the job, even though we had to try to pinch pennies on everything too. I shot for only eight weeks and two days, which is not much for this kind of film. We all wanted to make something that wasn’t carved in stone, that looked lively and natural, as if the story were taking place today. With people whose hair and makeup are not perfect, who sometimes look a little disheveled. The same was true for the music. I didn’t want period music. I asked Eric Neveux for music that had to do with a feeling. I didn’t want anything imposed from the outside, contemplative. I wanted it to be in tune with the emotions, when it had to be there. Eric Neveux’s score is very beautiful, very elegant. He understood what I wanted to tell, above and beyond the instructions I gave him. I loved working with him. When I sent him the film in Los Angeles, he spoke about it with a great deal of enthusiasm and emotion. For example, in the last scene, where Cézanne has just heard his friend denigrate him, I didn’t want any despairing music over that ending. And Eric immediately evoked what that return to those mountains and landscapes of Provence meant for someone who belonged to them. He was returning to his work, to his destiny as an artist, to what he truly was. We both wanted a tonality of hope. This story of a friendship – which is almost a love story – was both painful and magnificent.

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