Cézanne - Portraits of a Life coming to a cinema near you!

WORDS BY PHIL GRABSKY

EOS Cézanne - Phil Grabsky filming Monique at Mont Saint-Victoire ® EXHIBITION ON SCREEN (David Bickerstaff)

EOS Cézanne - Phil Grabsky filming Monique at Mont Saint-Victoire ® EXHIBITION ON SCREEN (David Bickerstaff)

It’s a pattern that repeats itself – every time I finish a film I think ‘now that really is the greatest artist that ever lived!’.   I know, deep down, it’s a ridiculous thought to have as how can one really compare Leonardo to Vermeer or Rembrandt to Hopper?  But, just before Christmas as we signed off on our film about Cézanne, there was that feeling again.  Judge for yourselves in the weeks ahead when the film reaches a cinema near you (hopefully) but, for me personally, as the months of film-making progressed, I grew and grew in admiration of the man and his art.   Towards the end of his life he wrote the following words:


‘My age and my health will never allow me to realise the artistic dream I have pursued all my life. But I shall always be grateful to the audience of intelligent art lovers who have sensed what I was trying to do to renew my art, in spite of my halting attempts…In my opinion, one does not replace the past, one only adds a new link. With painter’s temperament and an artistic ideal, that is to say a conception of nature, there should be sufficient means of expression to be intelligible to the general public and to occupy a suitable rank in the history of art’.


I think it is fair to say Cézanne now occupies that ‘suitable rank’. Maybe one can’t claim him as the greatest but certainly among the greats.  For me, this film started a couple of years ago when I heard that London’s National Portrait Gallery was planning an exhibition of Cézanne’s portraits – something actually no-one had ever done (bar one similar exhibition by his dealer shortly after Cézanne’s death).   I went to see the gallery and they told me that this was to be a three-gallery co-operation with the Museé d’Orsay in Paris and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.  The next step was to talk to the curators – what was the plan for the show, what was the thesis?  Then we had to decide what is the story of our film?  

EOS Cézanne - Phil Grabsky at Portraits de Cézanne exhibition ® EXHIBITION ON SCREEN (David Bickerstaff)

EOS Cézanne - Phil Grabsky at Portraits de Cézanne exhibition ® EXHIBITION ON SCREEN (David Bickerstaff)


The decision having been made to make the film I set about the research in earnest. Here I declare a healthy dose of good fortune.  The author Alex Danchev had only recently written both a new biography and a new translation of many of Cézanne’s letters.  Those of you who have read my earlier blogs will know I always try to start a new biographical film in what I consider the obvious place - the artist’s correspondence. That’s exactly what I did here – and, as ever, the man that emerges differs from the preconceptions that we have built up previously.  In the course of making films about other artists of this period I think I had accumulated superficial ideas concerning Cézanne and his ill-tempered nature, his poor personal presentation, his reclusiveness in Provence.  Even though I had made a short film about him back in the 90s I admit to still having had those attitudes towards Cézanne.  Until I read the letters, until I read the new biography, until I spoke to the curators and until I saw the plans and pictures for the exhibition.   Then I realised there was, of course, so much more to this man.

Aix, 3 August 1906I get up early and it’s only really between five and eight that I can lead my own life. By the time the heat becomes stupefying, and saps the brain so much that I can’t even think of painting.
I caught bronchitis, I’ve abandoned homeopathy for old-fashioned mixed syrups.It’s a shame that I can’t give many demonstrations of my ideas and sensations, long live the Goncourts, Pissarro, and all those who have a propensity for colour, which represents light and air.
I know that with the terrible heat you and maman will be tired; so its good thing that you were both able to get back to Paris in time to find yourselves in a less burning atmosphere.I must remind you not to forget the slippers, the ones I have are just about giving up on me.

Having looked much deeper into who was Paul Cézanne and then having looked closely at the forthcoming exhibition and accompanying catalogue, the next stage was to decide how best to make a film for the cinema.  I knew instinctively that mood was going to be vital so one of my first calls was to composer Asa Bennett to discuss a score that would give me the dramatic and emotional bed that the film would need.  Doing this early helps as, with luck, one gets early drafts to listen to when on location researching and shooting.  I decided we needed to do a little bit of shooting in Paris – especially if we could secure interviews with Orsay’s curator Xavier Rey (who has now moved on to Marseille) and the museum’s director Laurence des Cars (who is extremely busy of course). We got both and, my word, they were great.  The key filming of the exhibition was to be London – and the National Portrait Gallery were fantastic to work with.   We had three long days and nights there and the privilege of filming paintings like these never wanes.  In a way, though, the key shoot was in and around Aix-en-Provence.   David Bickerstaff flew down to help me with the filming and we spent a good few days capturing what we felt we needed of the town, Cézanne’s homes and studios as well as the surrounding countryside.  If you know anything about Cézanne you’ll know that his heart and soul lay in the forests and hills around his hometown.  That is where he and his good friend Emile Zola spent their childhood – and it is where he was always happiest.  It entailed a few pre-dawn starts and after-dusk finishes for the filming but we captured some gorgeous material – to be honest, it’s not hard. A particular thrill though was filming a dawn time-lapse while standing on the dam that Emile Zola’s father had built.

All this footage we took back into the edit – and there the fun began.  How long do we hold on a painting? How many letters do we quote from? How much of the interviews do we use? And so on.  But Clive Mattock (the editor) and I quickly found our feet and something about this film just clicked from an early stage.  I’d been worried when I commenced the project that somehow there wouldn’t be enough meat on the bone – how foolish I was to think that even for a moment. It has been invigorating to have been Cézanne’s companion for the past year – and his art has revealed to me a previously unrealised depth and brilliance.  I think it’s one of the best EXHIBITION ON SCREEN’s we’ve done and, yes, right now he’s unquestionably one of the greatest artists I know.