A New York Times review of The Life of Emile Zola, written by a critic named Frank Nugent and published in 1937, says that Paul Muni’s performance here, as the eponymous novelist, is the best work of his career. Iv’e only seen him on the List twice before this, in Scarface and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, so I’m probably not as familiar with his resume as a working critic of the day may have been, but I’m prepared to not just take Nugent’s word on the matter – I’ll endorse it, appropriate it, will use my playforms to say that this is undoubtedly Muni’s best performance, simply because I can’t imagine him going deeper into any other role.
The Life of Emile Zola also seems to explore new ground for its time in that, although I’m sure there had already been several Shakespeare adaptations and otherwise hyperverbal/articulate movies since the normalization of sound in the early 1930s, this is the first movie on the List to sport long sequences of lyrical dialogue. Almost like director William Dieterle is trading the visual craft of cinema for the craft of sound. Muni is of course a spectacle all on his own, and to se him deliver the movie’s two powerful monologues is to see his skillset reach a refined fever pitch – but, as Nugent pointed out even at the hour of its release, the camera goes completely dead in these scenes. Just gazes at Muni in mid-shots or closeups. And maybe this is a bad thing, in that it makes for pretty stagnant framing, but another perspective to take is that here’s a director who wants his actors to shine, to steal the show. I guess it just depends on what you like.
A common complaint in the early years of sound in cinema was that, with actors needing to stand near cumbersome microphones in order to be heard, and the director needing to accommodate that stasis, it killed a lot of cinema’s visual artistry – which directors like Charlie Chaplin and John Ford would insist had achieved its apex in the silent era. I haven’t felt so far, of any movie from the early 1930s, that I was watching a play (except maybe with the blocking in Little Caesar, where everybody in the room is in frame at the same time and they all seem angled to favor an audience seated directly at their feet) and I think that by 1937, when Zola was made, the technology had evolved enough that this wasn’t such an issue anymore. Actors could move comfortably around a set without fear of going unheard.
So there’s part of me that wants to excuse director William Dieterle of Laziness when he just gives stagnant shots of Muni reading, or arguing in court, but I suspect the intention was to film the scenes in such a way as to steady all eyes upon the performance. This is just the way he wants to tell his story.
I was just talking with Pavel about Inherent Vice, the Thomas Pynchon novel that got adapted by Paul Thomas Anderson in 2009. In arguing about whether there really are things in the novel that can’t be translated to the screen, I started wondering if a shot isn’t like a sentence. A flat long shot is a pace-less run-on. Surely one should be always concerned with making their sentences expedient if not pretty.
But whatever, the movie itself is really good otherwise, and while the court case that dominates its second half – wherein Zola, a Parisan novelist, comes to the defense of Alfred Dreyfus, a man wrongly accused of leaking military secrets – kinda ruptures the straightforward biopic rhythm I was so enjoying up to then, the trial is dramatic and engaging. The release of Dreyfus at the end, the triumph of Zola and of justice alike, is rewarding, affords us the heartswell of a hard-earned and meaningful dramatic close, and it’s balanced, emotionally, by the accidental death (carbon monoxide poisoning) of Zola himself.
The first act, where we see Zola as a struggling writer living in a garret with the painter Paul Cezanne, was the most resonant for me by a long shot, of course, because the twentysomething Zola’s got pretty much the same concerns and goals as I do: struggling to make a living, being totally ill-suited for conventional workplace demands, and struggling to win attention for his writing. I’m actually writing this essay after filing away the eighth rejection slip for Horny Nuns [editor’s note from the future: the eight was not the last], and as eviction from my dad’s house becomes almost too disarmingly imminent to comprehend – I find myself, like, on Zola’s wavelength. Feel me?
Probably a major aspect that differentiates us, the question that doesn’t’ seem to creep up on Zola, is the issue of whether he’s any good or not.