Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 7, 2023)
With 1937’s The Life of Emile Zola, we get that year’s winner of the Best Picture Oscar. As implied, it brings the story of the noted French author.
In 1862, we meet Emile Zola (Paul Muni) as a struggling writer who lives hand to mouth with his friend, painter Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff). Zola’s mother (Florence Roberts) and his girlfriend Alexandrine (Gloria Holden) get him a job as a book clerk, but he still can’t make ends meet.
Zola gets in trouble for his book The Confessions of Claude as authorities think he’s subversive. Zola wants to expose the truth about society, and this gets him fired.
Matters improve after he meets a hooker named Nana (Erin O’Brien Moore) and finds out her story. He publishes a book about her called Nana and it becomes a hit. The movie then follows Zola’s success as he becomes a powerful force in society.
When I looked at other discussions of Zola, I saw an awful lot of praise for Muni’s lead performance. He won the Best Actor Oscar and continues to receive plaudits for his work.
Frankly, I don’t think Muni merits this level of praise. While I don’t expect realism from acting in movies from this era, Muni offers such a radically theatrical performance that it becomes a distraction.
With his eyes bugged out of his head and his constant gesticulating, it’s like watching a hummingbird who drank a case of Jolt Cola. Muni uses every portion of his body to try to sell the lines, and it gets very old.
The first scene in which he chats with Cezanne sets the tone, as Muni chomps the scenery with gusto. I think it’s unnatural and distracting. Rather than make the character come to life, Muni’s work makes it tough to get involved in the story.
This becomes a contrast with the other actors, most of whom present much subtler performances. The best comes from Schildkraut as Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a military officer accused of treason.
He brings a quiet nobility to his role that makes his treatment all the more heartbreaking. When we compare Muni with the others, it often feels like they’re in different movies, and I prefer the work presented by the quieter, more naturalistic actors.
Despite my dislike of Muni’s lead performance, I think Zola works as a film. I must say that it conveys the passage of time poorly, though.
It acts as a weird overview of Zola’s career, one that leaps about from one era to another without much clarity. While it doesn’t need to spoon-feed us, the confusing chronology makes it difficult to follow the story at times.
At least Zola manages to tell a compelling story, and it usually does so well. The emphasis on the Dreyfus affair makes sense, as it presents a very interesting tale of injustice.
Frankly, I think a movie that focused on Dreyfus and left Zola as a secondary character might be even better. It’s intriguing to watch Zola’s early career and his rise to prominence, but to a degree, it feels like little more than exposition as the movie builds to the Dreyfus elements.
I wouldn’t call The Life of Emile Zola one of the best Oscar winners, but it proves generally engaging. I don’t think its lead actor does a very good job, as he plays the role in a wildly theatrical way. The other performers pick up the slack, though, and the inherent strengths of the story help make this a consistently involving tale.