Monday, May 3, 2010

The Life of Emile Zola

life of emile zola cover

Have you ever heard of this 1937 biographical film?  Did you know it won the Oscar for best picture and was a box office and critical success?  I hadn't--and now that I've seen it, I know why.

This movie is basically a mess.  All of the people in it need to sign up for Overacting Anonymous, and the director needs to remember that people shouldn't hesitate in their lines when they're supposed to be impetuously interrupted by another actor.

Anyway, here's the summary:  it's the life of famous French writer, Emile Zola.  The film opens with Zola and boyhood friend, Paul Cézanne, living in a crappy apartement and dreaming of being great artistes while espousing the bohemian idéals of truth, beauty, freedom, and love.  Then they meet a prostitute and Zola writes Nana, has great success, but sacrifices it all to write J'Accuse and stand up for justice.

First, the narrative of this movie is incomprehensible and boring.  If I didn't already know about events like the Franco-Prussian War and The Dreyfus Affair, I would have been utterly confuzzled.  Even though it's supposed to be about Zola, we learn really next to nothing about him or his life.  I didn't see his kids in the movie at all, his wife is only mentioned by name once (although she does get a good ten minutes of screen time staring at him devotedly while he rambles on about something-or-other), and his infamous row with Cézanne over The Masterpiece never happens.  Instead, they remain friends.  Like okay?  Even more annoying is that during the whole course of the Dreyfus Affair--which is what this movie is really about--no one once mentions that Dreyfus was Jewish and the whole thing was underpinned by antisemitism.  Nor do they show Zola dying, or mention that he was probably assassinated for political reasons.  Since that's really interesting and dramatic, and would fit into the message the movie appeared to be trying to deliver, I really have to wonder why it was never even alluded to.  If the interwebz hadn't been invented yet, I would have sworn the script writers did all their research by reading wikipedia.

Now for the acting, which is ridonkulous.  By far the most annoying actor in the entire movie was Gale Sondergaard, who played Madame Dreyfus.  She. Was. TERRIBLE!  Like the worst thing I've ever seen in my entire life.  Whenever she came on screen I just had to groan.  Paul Muni was okay--he did manage to look like Zola, although he didn't behave at all the way I imagine Zola would.  He also spent the entire courtroom scene looking like he was either bored or sleeping.  Honestly, I'm pretty sure I saw him with his eyes closed for about ten minutes during cross-examination. 

Surprisingly, the only part of the movie I liked was Vladimir Sokoloff as Paul Cézanne.  Usually I hate Cézanne, but Sokoloff's version of him was pretty awesome.  And his acting was so much better than everyone else's--much more naturalistic and believable.

Overall, I'd say this movie is a big fat skip.  It's neither entertaining nor informative, and I will never get those two hours of my life back.

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