The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

The immediate issue with this film is that its title is notoriously misleading.  The Life of Emile Zola is hardly Zola’s life story, it is about the circumstance that would lead this man to rediscover what it is that makes his life worth living.  It may take a while to build, but once it has it is truly on form.

The story begins when Zola is young, skinny and beardless.  Starving, he manages to make some money from his writing and in a short space of time – perhaps a little too short – he matures into an older man, significantly bearded and notably fatter.  Zola then finds himself embroiled in the Dreyfus affair, a plot of political intrigue where an innocent man is framed for being a spy.  Roused by the spectre of the loss of freedom, Zola rediscovers the passion that keeps him writing and sets about freeing Dreyfus from his island prison.

One of the key problems with The Life of Emile Zola is that the exposition portion of the film only meekly conveys the film’s ultimate intention.  Zola grows old much too quickly for us to be particularly stirred by his complacency in later life, and we more see a change in Zola than we do feel this change.  The Middle-Age of Emile Zola would perhaps have been a better title?

Which brings me to another issue – how is it possible for us to be interested in Zola when he’s just sitting around getting fat?  It’s really not a very good set-up.  Other than his rousing courtroom speech, the only remotely interesting thing Zola does in the whole film is go down to the fish market and buy a lobster!  Then the Dreyfus affair comes out of nowhere about half an hour into the film.  Surely they could have sewn the seeds of the dramatic heart of the story a little sooner.  For that matter, why not just call the film The Dreyfus Affair and make that the focus instead of trying to make a protagonist out of a man on the outskirts of the story who takes very little direct action?  In terms of dramatic posturing I’m struggling to be convinced.

So here I am seemingly ripping the film to shreds, but I actually loved it.  While there are problems with structure, as a whole this film is superb.  The artistic direction is astonishing for it’s subtlety.  For instance, the rigidity of the French army is expressed through clean, straight lines, with nothing intersecting the character’s faces.  This is juxtaposed against Zola and his home, which contain many curves and flambuoyant circles.  When Zola is present, the picture makes it feel like his energy is spilling out around him.  Rather than the showy but ultimately empty aesthetic presented to us in The Great Ziegfeld, The Life of Emile Zola offers us a screen image crafted with subtely beautiful expression.

And importantly, the film has some moments of strikingly absolute humanity.  The scene where Dreyfus is freed from his cell is both joyous and heartbreaking, and Paul Muni’s depiction of Zola is laced with skill and charisma.  Muni must demonstrate a broad age range in the film, and as with all of these classics the make-up, costume and acting faciliate the aging process very convincingly.

The Life of Emile Zola well deserves it’s place in the Academy Award canon, with it’s mastery of visual image and it’s compelling human drama.  But as with Cimarron, I feel like this film is from an era which is, in hindsight, still getting the hang of things.


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