April 3, 2014

The Life of Emile Zola

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When critiquing whether or not a film is in fact the "Best Picture" of its year, I consider a few questions. What is this film's story and is it extraordinary? Do I care about this story? Is the story executed in a particularly fascinating or resonating kind of way? I have to be excited by a movie for it to be my choice for the best picture, and personally I feel a picture must have a certain degree of grandness to it in order to achieve a "best" status. So given my way of thinking, biopics can be a little tricky for me. Films that are a work of fiction are boundless in its narrative opportunities. Films based on real people and true stories are more constrained, and they've really got to pack an extra punch to impress me. The Great Ziegfeld was about a real person who led an extraordinary life, yet the film's execution was horribly sloppy. The King's Speech and A Beautiful Mind were adequate enough pictures, but I'll be damned if I said the mundane stories of a king who learns to fix his stutter and a math professor who struggles with schizophrenia were monumental contributions to the cinematic arts. Nevertheless, this past year's 12 Years a Slave and The Wolf of Wall Street are perfect examples of biopics that captivated me from beginning to end, that really evoked visceral feelings out of me. So for me, there has to be a union of a riveting story and a director with the right vision and engineering to make a truly best biopic.

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I mention this because I recently sat through The Life of Emile Zola, yet another hoity toity biopic whipped up by Warner Bros. and Paul Muni in the 1930's that tackles yet another social issue that happened some time ago. This is a movie that is allegedly supposed to be about the life of French author Emile Zola, yet it skates through much of Zola's younger years and the actual meat of the film revolves around a single solitary event--The Dreyfus Affair. So the title alone is misleading--this isn't so much about the life of this author, but rather a significant event that occurred in which said author had an association. While the injustice bestowed upon Alfred Dreyfus by the French government is appalling, the very premise goes by an age-old narrative formula: X is wronged by the big bad Y, and it's up Z to make it right. Add on all the poorly-aged conventions of 1930's cinema and it's obvious that The Life of Emile Zola would have needed a visionary direction to really be distinguishing--but alas, this film was helmed by the same man who made The Story of Louis Pasteur just the year before, which was an even more watered-down, diet-Pepsi studio attempt at teaching a history (and science) lesson. The pacing in Zola is pretty slow, and the entire film as a whole feels like it drags on for much longer than its actual running time. To give you an idea of just how poor the execution of this film was: we are first given a scene where an officer named Picquard tells the French army that Alfred Dreyfus is in fact not guilty and there is proof of his innocence. This scene lags on for awhile. It is then followed by another lagging scene with Mrs. Dreyfus going to Zola's house to tell him about there being proof of her husband's innocence. This is the followed by yet another scene in which Zola explains in detail to a crowd of people about how there is proof of Alfred Dreyfus' innocence. So essentially we are provided three lengthy consecutive scenes in which the exact same things are being reiterated. For a film that feels so self-important, not once did I get the sense that I was watching something amazing unfold. In fact, it all kind of reeks of insignificance. This isn't to say that I believe The Life of Emile Zola should never have been made--I just don't believe this is worthy of being the "best" picture. The story is unremarkably commonplace, at times dull. The film aesthetics are standard and ill-conceived. As a result, I'm not given a reason to care. It's a completely forgettable and pedestrian film that believes itself to be exciting and important.


  1. Mmh, I used to like it when I watched it but a re-watch might convince me otherwise... :)

  2. I remember disliking it. One of the worst. A boring film, with a good supporting performance.