Sunday, April 21, 2013


Has this ever happened to you? After watching an old movie for the first time or learning about a new author, you suddenly see references everywhere to that movie, author or whatever else it is you’ve recently discovered. To me, this type of occurrence feels reminiscent of that scene in “A Beautiful Mind” when codes and signs glowingly reveal themselves to Russell Crowe. On a much smaller scale, this just happened to me regarding Emile Zola, although I feel certain a Nobel Prize will not emanate from the experience.

I vaguely recall having heard the name Emile Zola before. But prior to watching “The Life of Emile Zola,” I didn’t know a straw about him. Frankly, I couldn’t have even told you his profession or why he was of any particular note.  Anyway, a day or two later, I was reading a book called “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” which is a memoir by former French Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby. At one point, Bauby makes a fleeting reference to Zola as an author whose works he was fond of reading, which inspired a tiny, internal celebration on the Metro car. 

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Emile Zola was a French writer whose rise to prominence began in the late 1860s and 1870s. His writings are considered part of the naturalist literary movement, which examines the role and the seemingly inescapable forces that social conditions and environment play in shaping one’s life. His magnum opus is a series of 20 novels, collectively known as “Les Rougon-Macquart,” which chronicle the natural and social history of a family under the Imperial Bonaparte regime of Napoleon III.

Directed by William Dieterle and toplined by Paul Muni, “The Life of Emile Zola” garnered 10 Oscar nominations, taking home three awards, including Best Picture for 1937. Apart from Muni, the rest of the cast is generally populated by lesser known character actors whose names and careers have long since been encapsulated and packed away into the annals of cinematic history. More than likely, even the name of Paul Muni won’t ring a bell for most people. In a way, this obscurity might only be fitting to Muni who was noted for his abilities to completely disappear into the roles he took on and “The Life of Emile Zola” is no exception. If he were alive and working today, I suspect he would be in the same league as Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis.

Paul Muni as Emile Zola.
Interestingly, “The Life of Emile Zola’s” Oscar glory marks consecutive victories for biopic films winning Best Picture, with the previous year’s champ being “The Great Ziegfeld.” Like “Ziegfeld,” “The Life of Emile Zola” suffered from a lack of development regarding its protagonist. This flaw is rooted in the film’s script, which deliver Zola to the audience as a social superhero who simply took up his pen to criticize the injustices around him, leaving out any of Zola’ journey that led him to this point.

To continue the superhero analogy, the first half of the film moves at  breakneck speed, hastily sketching Zola’s discovery of his literary powers and his ascendancy to the top. The script’s over-efficiency leaves out any real appreciation for Zola’s struggles and battles against his social enemies. It essentially hops scotches from Zola’s humble beginnings in a drafty attic apartment to his acquisitions of fame and fortune through his writings. It’s so frustrating when a biopic film skims over large chunks of its subject’s life, eliminating their struggles, their flaws, their relationships and their controversies. Without those sorts of details, there is nothing left to find compelling. I don’t see the point of making a picture dedicated to an individual if you’re not going to give the audience some tangibles. It’s like asking people to get on board with Batman picture while leaving out all of Bruce Wayne’s personal history.

Gale Sondergaard and Joseph Schildkraut
as Lucie and Alfred Dreyfus in "The Life of Emile Zola."
Anyway, the first act serves as a set up to the film’s second act, preparing Zola for battle against his greatest nemesis: the French Military. This chapter of Zola’s life became known as “The Dreyfus Affair,” in which Captain Alfred Dreyfus is knowingly and wrongfully accused of treason by his colleagues on the General’s Staff, whose anti-Semitic prejudices single Dreyfus out as their scapegoat for an internal mole problem. Due to an entreaty for help from Dreyfus’ wife, Zola steps on the hornet’s nest, composing an open letter called, “J’accuse,” criticizing the French government of anti-Semitism and for the unlawful imprisonment of Dreyfus.

The publication of “J’accuse” in 1898 quickly lands Zola in court on charges of libel, leading the second half of the film to become a tense courtroom drama, filled with impassioned speeches. The film adopts a considerably slower pace during this courtroom setting, but I would argue that it’s also when it hits its stride. There is no parsing of the details here. Instead, the story is more concerned with the journey than the destination, taking care to illustrate what a heavy-hearted, screwed-up affair “The Dreyfus Affair” really was for Zola.

A portrait of Emile Zola painted by Edouard Manet.
In the end, this film could have more accurately been called “The Life of Emile Zola on Trial” because, in a sense, Zola’s involvement with “The Dreyfus Affair” put everything he believed in and stood for up on the stand. Despite my best efforts to remain cynical toward the larger-than-life moments of dialogue and acting during the trial scenes, I found myself admiring Zola’s character to advance from his comfortable lifestyle in defense of truth. This feeling caused me to look past my frustrations with the film itself, leaving me to ultimately enjoy and appreciate Zola’s example. And, if nothing else, “The Life of Emile Zola” introduced me to the existence of Zola and his writing, posing the challenge to become better acquainted with his works on my own time, which is perhaps one the film’s long-term intents.

Favorite Line: Early on, Emile Zola is working for a publishing company, but is essentially fired for his socially progressive views. Upon gathering his things and leaving the office, his employer snidely chastises Zola’s commitments to his beliefs over his job security by saying, “Maybe a lean stomach will teach you better.”

In response, Zola counters to say, “A fat stomach sticks out to far, Monsieur La Rue. It prevents you from looking down and seeing what’s going on around you. While you continue to grow fatter and richer publishing your nauseating confectionary, I shall become a mole, digging here, rooting there, stirring up the whole rotten mess where life is hard, raw and ugly. You will not like the smell of my books, Monsieur La Rue. Neither will the public prosecutor. But when the stench is strong enough, maybe something will be done about it. Good day!”


  1. twenty novels should be called something grander than a magnum opus…I can't believe how prolific some artists are.

    You should work out a ratings system here…like stars or something that can help me know which films I absolutely need to sit down and watch with a bowl of popcorn…xo

  2. Great write-up! Just saw it tonight myself: