Monday, November 15, 2010

The Life Of Emile Zola: Extraordinary Man, Very Average Legal Drama.

The Good: Decent acting, Generally interesting characters
The Bad: Plot drags, Most of the DVD bonus features have nothing to do with the film.
The Basics: An interesting film, The Life Of Emile Zola is a legal drama that focuses far more on the Dreyfus Affair and Zola’s reaction to it than the author’s life.

It is a rare thing these days for me to sit down to watch a program and not recognize a single person in the film, even with classic films. I've never been a fan of old films (black and white and silent movies), but lately, my work as a reviewer has pretty much demanded I overcome my antipathy toward older works. So, it's pretty rare when I pop in a film and do not recognize anyone. In the case of the legal drama/biography The Life Of Emile Zola, the only actor I recognized was Donald Crisp. I've seen Crisp recently in Mutiny On The Bounty (click here for that review!) and How Green Was My Valley, but in The Life Of Emile Zola, he has such a small role that the film pretty much passes without him. In other words, The Life Of Emile Zola stands on its own; there is no bias for star power here!

It is worth noting that The Life Of Emile Zola is a biography and it is based on writings of and about Emile Zola, a French author. As my usual disclaimer goes, this is a review only of the film, not the person nor the writings upon which it was based. As the film poignantly notes, names and events were changed and as a result, liberties were taken with history in the film that are subject to entirely different debates. That said, The Life Of Emile Zola is a decent legal drama that is watchable, enjoyable and has moments that are memorable.

Freezing in an apartment in France in 1862, Emile Zola writes as his painter friend, Cezanne, paints. Burning books to stay warm and write his exposes, Zola fights for truth in his own way. Soon, he gets a legitimate job as a writer and begins to expose the underbelly of French politics. When the police intervene, he is fired, but publishes more books, becoming wildly popular and moving up in society. Meanwhile, the French military has Captain Alfred Dreyfus convicted and imprisoned for sending French military secrets to Germany. Living fat off the land, Zola turns away his wife when she asks him to investigate the matter.

One conversation with Cezanne, who declares that artists must starve to truly be artists, turns Zola around and he begins an investigation into the Dreyfus Affair that exposes the cover-up and wrongful conviction of Captain Dreyfus. When he writes about it, he becomes the target of charges against himself and he attempts to defend himself against a corrupt French Army which will do anything to retain power and protect its reputation and keep its part in the military conspiracy a secret.

The more I consider The Life Of Emile Zola, the more I consider the historical implications of it. Released in 1937, as Italy and Germany were building up their nations for the conflict that inevitably became World War II, The Life Of Emile Zola may be interpreted either as a cautionary tale against the military (there is a corrupt military regime here) and a tacit argument in favor of appeasement (elements of the plot are solved through the legal system and running away as opposed to open warfare) or as a satirical commentary on the European and American policies of appeasement (the way Zola runs away from his conviction being far less honorable than actually standing by his principles). Either way, part of the richness of The Life Of Emile Zola comes in the fact that it may be interpreted multiple ways and there is no "right answer" for the interpretation.

On the basic - less metaphorical - front, The Life Of Emile Zola is a character study of a dissident in a corrupt society. Like most characters of his type, he rails against the establishment until he inevitably becomes a part of it. In this case, Zola is challenged to return to his rabblerousing ways by abandoning his novels and instead getting back to hard-hitting journalism. This causes him to risk both his life and his career on behalf of Alfred Dreyfus and his wife. It also allows Zola to show his character as he fights for Dreyfus and himself through his own court battle.

Unfortunately, it also makes for some cheesy lines - Zola's ultimate feeling that shaking Dreyfus's hand is thanks enough "reads" a naïve by today's standards and it is hard to believe it went over well in the 1930s. As well, the protracted court battle makes for some problematic cinematography. Because of the specific story director William Dieterle is telling, The Life Of Emile Zola is often more of a stage play on film than it is a rousing cinematic experience. Dieterle hampers the viewer with long shots of Zoya's defense attorney asking for witnesses to be called, then having those requests denied by the corrupt judge. While this makes quite clear the theme and the frustration of Zola and his defense for being blocked by the excuse of "military privilege," it makes for a pretty lackluster set of scenes.

Moreover, it provides very little for actor Paul Muni to do. Muni plays Zola and he is electric when he is speaking . . . and predictably boring to watch when all he is doing is sitting before an attorney who keeps asking for witnesses to be brought in. In the latter portion of The Life Of Emile Zola, Muni has long stretches where he sits on screen and others talk around him, about his character. This is pretty standard for a legal drama and what separates The Life Of Emile Zola from most legal dramas is the defendant never has an outburst. Zola never appears bored or frustrated, he sits with an iron back watching the proceedings and looking like he will be exonerated. Muni does this as well as a man hired to sit and look dignified may do.

Where the real acting prowess of Paul Muni comes in is when he must speak as Zola. Muni looks and sounds dignified and he carries in his voice a righteous wit and vigor. He is impressive as Zola in that he clearly establishes the character in the beginning, illustrates his complacency in the middle and then returns to the righteous rebel for the end, all the while giving the viewer the sense that this is the same man all the way through. Muni expertly approaches the role and makes it his own. And when he speaks, no one on screen holds a candle to him. One suspects Muni is classically trained for the stage (he was) by his delivery of dramatic monologues and while there is a hint of melodrama in moments of his deliveries, we forgive him under the idea that "talkies" were still pretty new and the medium hadn't truly been figured out yet. Surprisingly, Muni did not receive an Academy Award for his role as Zola, but he was nominated.

On DVD, there is a commentary track, but most of the featurettes are actually early works by Paul Muni - including a radio presentation of his - that help the viewer better appreciate his acting. In the end, they are interesting, but there is actually very little on the disc about either The Life Of Emile Zola or the Dreyfus Affair.

In fact, The Life Of Emile Zola is a bit of a misnomer as a title; the film is almost exclusively about Zola's attempts to get the Dreyfus conviction overturned and the tribulations of his involvement in the investigation. Most of the movie is actually preoccupied with him defending himself against the French government and while Zola is the obvious hero (he's more than simply a protagonist) he is not highlighted nearly as much as the political machinations and corruptions around him are. Still, in these fractious times, The Life Of Emile Zola deserves to be watched, if for no other reason than to remind us that there have been those who put principles above pride . . . and success.

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, available by clicking here! Please check it out!]

For other legal dramas, please check out my reviews of:
The Verdict
Flash Of Genius


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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