Set against the backdrop of Paris, this documentary about Zola’s life and works is particularly poignant after the recent terrorist attacks. Glenda Jackson narrates the piece, ahead of her involvement in the upcoming serialisation of Zola’s epic Rougon-Macquart collection. Her journey begins as an attempt to understand more about the society in which her character would have lived, and results in a broad biography of Zola and the influences on his works.
Jackson interviews several experts on Zola who give contextual details and discuss the key themes of his works: blood, sex, and money. Blood, in terms of family, but also violence; sex, signifying desire and pleasure, but perversion; and money, equating to power. Jackson starts in Paris, where Zola spent most of his life, and meets Henri Mitterand, an internationally-acknowledged specialist on Zola. The story moves to Aix-en-Provence, where Zola grew up and where he met painter and friend Paul Cézanne.
The subjects of Zola’s works are uncovered as timeless. They feature a banking crisis, mirroring the 2008 global financial crisis, a societal obsession with celebrity, and a growing gap between rich and poor. Such relevance makes his work identifiable for people today despite its 19th century setting. In his lifetime, Zola experienced the life of the rich and of the poor: beginning his life in poverty after the death of his father, with his eventual literary success bringing him wealth. This allowed him insights into different sectors of society – in particular, the working class.
Jackson’s short documentary combines biographical and literary detail with atmospheric descriptions of 19th century France, making it entertaining as well as educational. Her interactions with academics provide insight into the context and reception of his works, whilst interviews with his descendants bring a personal aspect to the documentary. As an audience, we are allowed a view into Émile Zola the person, as well as Émile Zola the author and social critic. The relevance of Zola’s works is accentuated and celebrated by this documentary, as is Zola himself.
Image: Paris Metro: Waywuwei