Exclusive: Director Danièle Thompson and Star Guillaume Gallienne Talk ‘Cézanne et Moi’

We met on Wednesday with living monument of French cinema Danièle Thompson and star Guillaume Gallienne about their film Cézanne et Moi releasing in theatres on April 7th. This movie is the stirring depiction of the friendship between two major artists of the 19th century; Emile Zola played by Guillaume Cannet and Paul Cézanne played by Gallienne.

Do you think playing a historical figure, and a very important artist, demands more work because you actually have a model and you can go wrong or is it easier because you have a model you can imitate?

Guillaume Gallienne: Well I can’t really imitate as long as the guy is dead. As far as getting wrong the one who really takes the risks is the scriptwriter, it’s not really me. I just trust the script. I can read different letters and different documents and probably have a different feeling and discuss it with Danièle but I actually didn’t do it because I thought the script was great and the idea is not to play Cézanne as a statue but to play the story, the friendship between him and Zola. And it wasn’t about Cézanne’s life or about Zola’s life, it was really about their relationship and I trusted Danièle completely. The challenge was more to be right about the painting, about how he painted. So Danièle introduced me to a painter from Marseilles called Gérard Traquandi, very beautiful painter actually, and he gave me lessons in the way Cézanne painted because he had a very peculiar method. I had never painted in my life and we saw some paintings from Cézanne together and he explained to me not only his work but also the evolution of his work and that helped me a lot because I was playing a part from the age of 20 to the age of 70 and of course my character isn’t going to be the same and his painting changed a lot. And you can really see it throughout the film. It was fascinating work to do.

We have two opposing figures with Cezanne and Zola. One became famous very early on and was, while he was alive, a sort of institution and his last works are his least regarded. The other became successful very late in his life and more so after his death, his art becoming more avant-garde and even foreseeing cubism at the end of his life. Do you think success, or the institutionalization of an artist can harm his creativity?

Guillaume Gallienne: Oh definitely! I’m sure it can. Cézanne’s story is even harder because it’s one thing not to be recognized by your contemporaries but it’s another not to be recognized by your best friend. And that was the most touching aspect of the relationship. And also what I found out about Cézanne and that helped me play his character is the fact that I think Cézanne knew, fairly young, exactly what he wanted to achieve but just couldn’t do it! He went bananas, this is why he destroyed so many of his pieces. He destroyed two thirds of his paintings because it just wasn’t what he wanted and he knew what he wanted and he actually achieved that only in the last ten or fifteen years of his life. Before that it was such a struggle. Actually foreseeing cubism was there fairly young if you read some of his letters. He knew already the chromatic work, all that was already there, but he was in rage of not being able to materialize it. When you look at the thickness of the layers of paint on the canvas it goes from four centimetres at the beginning to practically nothing in the end, it’s just so simple. And that is something I am trying to do as an actor. At the moment, I’m closer to the four centimetres… And I understand Cézanne because I know exactly what this simplicity is. But how can I achieve it?

Simplicity is a quality in an artist?

Guillaume Gallienne: Well I would call it grace because it is closer to being than doing.

It’s a film on friendship but most of all a film on artists, and there is one inherent spectre in the artist’s life and that is doubt. Cezanne doubted a lot, have you had, as he had, periods of doubts regarding your talent as an actor and screenwriter?

Guillaume Gallienne: You should ask this question the opposite way, asking rather “when don’t you doubt?”. Then I would reply ‘oh that happened once at the end of one performance a long time ago.’

Danièle Thompson: It’s actually such a constant thing you don’t even notice it anymore because you live with it all the time. So obviously yes.

The poet Anthony Valbregue, also a childhood friend of Cezanne wrote “Every time he paints one of his friends it seems as though he was revenging himself on him for some hidden injury.” Do you think Cezanne was a very bitter character?

Guillaume Gallienne: The guy was bi-polar and a maniac-depressive. He ended as a complete misanthrope. He couldn’t stand anyone and lived only for his work. And he was very paranoid with women. He kept on saying in his letters that he was being used by women.

Danièle Thompson: I think it was more rage than bitterness but it could come out as bitterness. He was constantly uncomfortable with everything and everyone around him. He also had something that I thought about using and then decided not to and it’s that he couldn’t stand people touching him. He was a very very complicated and difficult man.

At the end of the movie we see Zola being a bit pompous and saying Cézanne is “a wasted genius”, it feels like you resent Zola for not understanding Cezanne’s art…

Danièle Thompson: So this is actually something that Zola said when he came to Aix at the end of his life and people asked him if he was going to visit his great friend Cézanne and he said “no, what a wasted genius”. It was repeated to Cézanne by the village baker. And that of course must have been a knife in his heart. The thing is Zola changed. When he was in his twenties and he was a journalist and a very very brilliant one he defended all that group of artists of impressionism through his articles. Zola wrote wonderful articles about his friends mostly Manet who he admired the most. He never wrote about his childhood friend Cézanne. He would dedicate the article to him but never write about him. I think that your best friends’ judgements are the toughest sometimes. But at the end of his life Zola became much more conservative and he wrote this amazing article in the eighties which I use in the film where he completely goes against the impressionists saying he can’t stand them anymore, that it just looks like laundry. So he himself grew into more of  a conservative mind-set.

Guillaume Gallienne: Well in some way conservative but at the same time because he discovered and was passionate about photography and because he was the father of naturalism in a way its kind of logical. And it is also logical that he could not understand Cézanne though Cézanne wanted to copy his best friend, wanted to do naturalism but he actually did cubism.

Cézanne and Me is a film on the tumultuous friendship of two major artists. At the end of his life Zola says he doesn’t appreciate Cezanne and all the impressionist paintings. Do you think two artists with two opposed visions can be friends?

Guillaume Gallienne: Oh god yes! Just as long as you respect each other. I remember a friend saying one day the only thing you cannot forgive in friendship is ‘indelicatesse’, or in English I think indelicacy. And they both became indelicate towards one an other. Just as long as you respect the other one’s point of view, it’s interesting, it’s enriching, but when you start looking at the other one’s work and judging, everything becomes difficult. And there was a big social frustration. For so many years Cézanne was the rich kid helping his friend Zola. And then it became the opposite. Zola was the grand bourgeois sending Cézanne money.

Danièle Thompson: And also Zola died four years before his friend so never saw the last few years of Cézanne’s painting which becomes amazing. But I think, had he seen the paintings, he wouldn’t have liked them, he wouldn’t have understood. They didn’t understand each other anymore.

Guillaume Gallienne: But I find it very touching, and that’s something I liked about the script is that it’s not a biopic. It’s not the purpose of the film. You can see there is a crisis coming throughout the film. And, you know, one of the most horrible and heart-breaking things that can happen to a man is not being recognized by your best friend.

Danièle Thompson: What amused me when I started doing the research and reading about this relationship is that it was an extremely long and extraordinary relationship. In fact, it resisted a long time. And this comes very much from being so close as children I think for it’s a time of life where your best friend is more important to you than anybody else in the world and you cannot imagine that you will ever lose touch. But in fact you lose touch more with your youth than with people and this is why I think they both struggled and remained friends for thirty-five years which is rare. And yet the failure of this attempt was the aspect I thought was very very moving. They had been friends as children, it lasted thirty-five years and then they broke up, why? This movie is why.

So is this a story about a failure of a friendship more than a friendship?

Guillaume Gallienne: Both! We needed to show how much they loved each other to understand why they broke up about this bloody book. Do you know I didn’t read the book? Because I felt that I wasn’t going to be able to play the love part. I thought if I read the book before shooting I’m going to hate Zola. For the relationship I only wanted Danièle’s version and dive into that story.  You see, Zola had been doing a lot of fiction, but at the same time because he was a realist and a journalist he wanted everything to be true and detailed. So in a way he started flirting with auto fiction and after a while because he was dry and felt dry he kind of used up one of the subjects he was acquainted with. What is the boundary between fiction and auto-fiction? How much is there of auto-fiction in a fiction? It’s a very complicated thing to deal with especially today when we believe that everything has to be true. So he used a lot of real stuff but unfortunately it was about his best friend and his best friend wasn’t in the best shape either.

And that’s what you call being indelicate…

Guillaume Gallienne: Of course, it’s a rape.

I have heard that your grandmother brought you as a child to see very famous artists such as Braque, where they an inspiration when you wrote about Cezanne? And if you had a grandchild who would you bring her to see today?

Danièle Thompson: It is true my grandmother was an extraordinary woman and she was really a groupie of artists. She became a sort of public relations, of course it wasn’t called like this at the time, for Paul Poiret the grand couturier. And through him she met all that generation of artists in the twenties and was very close with Raoul Duffy, Braque, Chagall and Utrillo. She lived in an apartment on the ground floor and I lived on the first floor and very often she would call me and say ‘you’re not going to school this afternoon; I’m going to take you to Utrillo’s studio’ for instance. And I’ll tell you about that visit because it was an incredible one. We walked into this little house in the suburbs and I heard him scream like crazy because he was in the middle of a delirium. So these are very strong memories of course and personally I wouldn’t bring my grandchildren to see Utrillo but I love paintings and painters and I do bring them to see the artists I am close to like David Sully and Eric Fischl. Something that I have kept since my childhood is the overwhelming smell of the studios when you arrive.

A lot of writing talent is turning towards television; do you see yourself writing for television?

Danièle Thompson: I was actually one of the first writers in France to write for television. I lived in America for ten years when I was very young and when I came back to France I had worked with my father on all the screenplays and nobody really knew who I was and most French star scriptwriters then would never touch television as it was considered something very minor. Because I had lived in America for ten years I had watched a lot of television and I knew it was coming as usual from America to France. So suddenly the phone rang and I was asked to do some television series in the 70’s. I did it and I loved it because to have the opportunity to tell a story in 7 hours is very interesting for a writer. So I think I will do it again.

If you could steal one painting from any museum in the world would it be a Cézanne or something else?

Guillaume Gallienne: Only one? That’s harsh. That a good question but a difficult one. I think I would go for a Nicolas de Stael. But I also would love a Constable.

Danièle Thompson: Really? English country side how boring! I would steal a David Hockney.

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