Directed by: William Dieterle
Screenplay by: Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald and Geza Herczeg (all won Oscar)
Starring: Paul Muni, Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut (won Oscar), Gloria Holden
My rating: 7/10
IMDb rating: 7.3/10
The Awful Truth
The Good Earth
In Old Chicago
One Hundred Men and a Girl
A Star Is Born
Synopsis: Writer Émile Zola (Muni) struggles through life in Paris as a starving artist. Eventually, his works become recognised and he lives a comfortable life with his wife (Holden). But that’s interrupted when the wife (Sondergaard) of a wrongly persecuted man (Schildkraut) comes to Émile for help.
The Life of Emile Zola was one of the more subtle films I’ve seen so far. Older movies are characterised by melodramatic performances, but here they feel restrained, and almost modern because of it. It helps that Paul Muni, who won best actor the previous year for his portrayal of the title character in The Story of Louis Pasteur, is quirky and scruffy and totally unlike most dashing and debonair leading men from this era (*cough*Clark Gable*cough*).
The costumes are gorgeous. It’s a period piece that starts off in 1862, with Zola and his roommate Cézanne. Zola is a dreamer and a lovable troublemaker, but my god, do I feel for his wife. In fact, my main complaint about this movie (and, let’s face it, most old movies) is that the women don’t do much. They offer support or conflict or whatever the plot needs, then they just recede back into the background and let the men do the rest. And they don’t seem to age like their male counterparts.
While it is about Émile Zola, the story is more about the triumph of justice in the Dreyfus affair. I’m surprised it’s fallen into obscurity these days. I’d never heard of it before, but judging by the number of films based on this story, it was a pretty historic event. Also, Émile Zola’s damning letter on the Dreyfus affair is the origin of the phrase “J’accuse”.
After parallel tales of Zola’s rise to fame and Dreyfus’s unjust imprisonment, the storylines converge with Dreyfus’s wife begging Zola to use his clout as a national treasure to get justice for Dreyfus.
His ascent to fame is quite quick. The movie doesn’t dwell on his starving artist days for longer than half an hour. Which is fair enough, the story is about the Dreyfus affair.
It’s a very emotional movie, because Zola reaches a point where he can no longer sit back and ignore what’s going on. He’s torn between his comfortable life and doing what’s right. I never outright cried during the movie, but there were many times my eyes were prickling.
The movie is full of sweet quirky touches, like how Zola is afraid of catching cold, and how, *SPOILER for a 79-year-old movie and 110-year-old historic event* after being released, Dreyfus walks out of his hut on Devil’s Island, then promptly re-enters and exits several times.
My favourite quote from this is the very last line of the film. Referring to Émile, a friend says: “He was a moment of the conscience of man.” Isn’t that what we should all strive for?
Bottom line: A stirring and inspirational movie, full of great performances.
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