Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Life of Emile Zola

“You know that people don’t want to see the stark face of truth.  They would much prefer perfumed lights like these.  They ought to be burned like something unclean.”
“Why Paul that’s splendid!  Why didn’t you think of that before?  We shall have a fire!”
“We could sell them and—“
“What?  And expose others to their stinking hypocrisies?  No my friend.  We’ll burn them…and let their lying pages warm the bones of men of truth!”

--Paul Cezanne to Emile Zola, when Zola decides to burn their books, The Life of Emile Zola
It has been a whirlwind few weeks, and I'm sorry to say that my blogging has suffered because of it.  But never fear, I haven't abandoned my quest!  Again, I think it didn't help that this wasn't a movie I was in any way interested in.  And I have to say it is quite jarring to see an opening title card claiming that the biopic I am about to watch is not historically accurate. So despite an opportunity to witness one of Paul Muni’s remarkable performances, this biopic is overacted, lacking in plot, and, well…yawn…

The Plot
Cezanne and Zola in their attic
 It is 1862, and radical political writer Emile Zola, played by Paul Muni, and his childhood friend, painter Paul Cezanne, share a poorly insulated attic in Paris that they can’t afford.  Luckily, Zola’s mother and fiancé burst in and proclaim that they have finally found a job for Zola, working for a local printer.  Zola and Alexandrine, his fiancé, can finally be married while Zola makes some money and still has time for his writing.  But even with Alexandrine to support, Zola refuses to stop publishing his incendiary articles and books, finally causing him to lose his job.  He writes the truth, exposing both the government and various bureaucracies to ridicule.  But it is not until his story of a poor and heartbroken prostitute, Nana, hits the stands that he is finally able to make money off his writing.  Cue the obligatory montage of the famous novels of Zola.

Zola, Cezanne, and Nana evade the police
It is many years later and the film focuses on the “Dreyfus Affair.”  Commandant Esterhazy has been selling French military secrets to the Germans, and one of his letters is finally seized.  The military officials are unsure who to blame, and therefore with no evidence decide to focus on Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus, played by Joseph Schildkraut in an Oscar-winning performance.  With a mockery of a trial (which includes forged evidence) the French military officials rip Dreyfus away from his young family and send him into life imprisonment on Devil’s Island.  After a few years, new military intelligence chief, Colonel Picquart, reviews the evidence and declares it is Esterhazy, not Dreyfus, who is guilty.  But the other officials refuse to admit to a mistake, and while Esterhazy is tried, they do not convict the higher ranking official.  Picquart is bundled off to Africa where he can’t cause trouble.  Though no one will listen to her, Dreyfus’s wife, played by Gale Sondergaard, continues to fight on his behalf.

Dreyfus and his family
Meanwhile, Zola has grown old, rich, and respected.  Though Cezanne finally leaves him for the country, claiming he has grown too complacent, Zola is happy in his old age and about to be accepted as a member of the French Academy.  But when Dreyfus’s wife shows up at his door, he is unable, despite his reluctance, to ignore an injustice of this magnitude.  He publishes his most famous piece, an article called “J’accuse!” on the front page of a local newspaper.   In it he accuses both the President and high ranking military officials of corruption and anti-Semitism.  His article causes the French people to riot in the streets and the government to charge him with libel.
Cezanne tells Zola that all artists should stay poor
Despite an intelligent and impassioned plea from his lawyer, Zola is convicted in a long courtroom scene.  It is clear that the government and military are so corrupt, Zola and Dreyfus will never get a fair hearing.  He must go into hiding in England rather than be arrested.  Finally, however, new government officials reopen the case and pardon both Zola and Dreyfus.  Zola has a new lease on life, and is happily writing away when he passes out due to the carbon monoxide leaking from his chimney.  While Dreyfus is being given military awards and pardoned in public the next day, the word suddenly reaches him that Zola has just died.  The final scene of the film is a long, intense monologue that sums up the entire plot of the movie and the moral lesson of integrity we were supposed to learn at Zola's elaborate funeral.

Zola on trial
The History
Paul Muni told Jack Warner that he wanted to be Emile Zola.  So Warner put the film into motion for one of his highest grossing stars.  He hired William Dieterle, the director who had won Muni a “Best Actor” Oscar for his previous film, The Story of Louis Pasteur.  One more overblown, moralistic biopic later, and Warner had another hit on his hands.  The Life of Emile Zola was Warner Brothers' highest grossing film of the year. Time magazine called it “the outstanding prestige picture of the season” and the New York Film Critics awarded it both Best Picture and Best Actor awards.  It received the most Oscar nominations of that year (10) and won for “Best Picture,” “Best Supporting Actor,” and “Best Screenplay.”  Warner, thrilled with his first award for “Best Picture,” called the film “the masterpiece this industry has so highly honored.”  While the film has since been selected for preservation by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant," this film has largely faded into obscurity.  RottenTomatoes.com sums its legacy up the best: “Well-written, well-meaning and solidly acted, the film may ultimately be more earnest than interesting.”
Paul Muni as Emile Zola
As far as the Awards go, this year was the biggest year for Capra to make peace.  In the Academy’s new charter, they officially relinquished any interest in regulating labor disputes and proclaimed that anyone involved in an official guild could vote for the awards, causing the voting numbers to jump from 800 to 15,000, most of whom were extras.  The Awards had to be postponed a few weeks because of storms and flooding, but when they finally arrived there was as much as drama as ever.  Though not everyone went (including Muni, who declared that since he won the previous year, arriving again would just “embarrass everyone”) the biggest coup would come when Luise Rainer won again for “Best Actress,” the first to ever win twice in a row.  Rainer also gave birth to what has now become known as the “Oscar curse.”  After her double win, her studio didn’t feel the need to exert themselves and she never got another good part from Hollywood.  Dealing with a dissolving marriage and a society where she felt she just did not fit in, Rainer finally returned to Europe in 1938 for good.

Joseph Schildkraut as Captain Alfred Dreyfus
The Verdict?
Here is the single biggest thing that bothers me about this movie: the opening title card.  I can get past the outdated acting, the moralizing and the pontificating, even the strange meandering script.  But this?  This completely throws me for a loop.

This film is a historical biopic.  I know this because the title of the film claims it is the story of a famous French writer.  So why does the opening card tell me that this film is fiction?  I actually don’t even really know what this is trying to say: “With the exception of known historical characters, whose actual names are herein used, no identification with actual persons, living or dead, is intended or should be inferred.”  So, basically, everyone in this film who is named after a real person is real, but everyone else is fabricated.  And possibly others. What??

Its honesty should be refreshing.  As a lover of history, I can’t count the number of times I have yelled at the screen of a movie while watching it completely butcher history (looking at you, Elizabeth).  I understand that, given certain time constraints, it is difficult to come up with a completely accurate movie.  Unless you are looking to do a BBC miniseries, it is necessary to scale a picture back.  Sometimes altering or shortening history can benefit a film, and as long as the movie is good and doesn’t severely alter a beloved story, I can stick around to watch something that’s not quite true.  But even though I know the director is taking liberties with reality, I don’t want him to tell me before the movie starts!  This title card completely undermines the film.  If, other than the title character, this film is not based on fact, and the entire purpose of the film is the tell the story of a real person’s life, then what’s the point?  I spent the entire film attempting to ascertain what was real and what wasn’t, and wondering why I couldn’t just find another film that did tell me the truth about  Emile Zola.  Message to directors:  lie to me, I don’t want to know where you embroidered the facts until I go home and use Wikipedia.

Other than that jarring title card, this film plods along predictably enough.  What’s strange for me is the first half hour of the movie.  The film is 2 hours long, and only the first half hour isn’t about the “Dreyfus Affair.”  This is what Zola is remembered for, but if they had cut the first half hour and devoted the whole movie to the “Dreyfus Affair” I would have been much less confused.  A half hour in, Dreyfus has become famous, achieved his goals, written all his books, and is about to retire.  I found myself asking where the rest of the movie was headed.  They could have summed the beginning of the movie up in one good title card.  One that didn’t undermine the whole film.

Ultimately, I agree with RottenTomatoes.com.  Muni and Schildkraut give convincing performances, and the creators of this movie clearly want to show us how earnest and moral they are.  But pompous dialogue, a confusing script, and one very silly title card combine to make this film one of those better left in the past.

Help!  I'm drowning in overacted bravado!  Maybe I can count on Capra to pull me out of it?

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1 comment:

  1. Paul Muni just never quite got the respect that he truthfully deserved as an actor, which is a shame.