Vincent Van Gogh in Film: Moving Pictures, by Alexander Miller
Like so many brilliant, troubled, artistic minds, Vincent Van Gogh has been a recurring source of inspiration in cinema throughout the years. Naturally, the legacy, reputation, and work of Van Gogh is catnip for films and filmmakers, providing layers of material rife for exploration, suiting, perfectly the manifold bullet-points of superlative filmic structure. A venerated, and influential artist who wasn’t appreciated in their time, a tortured soul who died young, struggled with mental illness, with a close, but contentious relationship with his brother, Theo, and notable artists (Gauguin).
And most importantly, all of this is recorded with enough detail to lend Van Gogh the perfect level of buoyancy with the allotted room to foster his myth as well as the historical gravitas of the subject. Not to mention, a zero-turn interest rate as the enigmatic figure is of universal interest to audiences over the years, he’s not likely to fall out of vogue anytime soon.
This oddly convenient formula has not only enabled a (rather large) handful of screen realizations but also provided an avenue for actors to showcase their talents in bringing Van Gogh to life. It just so happens that these features are often helmed by visionary directors.
There are documentaries, some essay films, teleplays, and other curiosities. Benedict Cumberbatch donned the red beard and brushes for a BBC dramatized documentary in 2010 with Van Gogh: Painted With Words. Alain Resnais cobbled a twenty-minute essay film in 1948. John Hurt was Van Gogh’s soulful posthumous narrator in Paul Cox’s 1987 film Vincent. It’s not a feature but there’s a noteworthy depiction by Martin Scorsese in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. An initial surprise to see but a rewarding vignette from Kurosawa who’s fascination with the painter is without question earnest and curious.
But the headline titles kick-off with Vincente Minelli’s 1956 Lust for Life, featuring an Oscar-nominated effort from the stalwart Kirk Douglas giving a wild-eyed performance as the tortured Dutch painter and Anthony Quinn supplying an equally exciting turn as Gaughin, which earned him a deserved statue. Minelli’s handsomely mounted direction has the ample scope of an MGM production, and there’s some vitality to Douglas. He’s thoroughly committed to the role, while his husking physicality feels at odds with the brooding artist persona, and at times this iteration of Van Gogh is less interiorized, too romantic and theatrical to leave an impression. Minelli’s often thought of as a colorful, stylist confectionist but his incisive commentaries on the artistic process, like The Bad and the Beautiful and Two Weeks in Another Town, are a couple of his best efforts and that energy is present in Lust for Life. However, it would be better if it was pulsing.
Cox’s aforementioned documentary would crop up in 1987. Still, one of the more distinguished explorations of Van Gogh (and a personal favorite) is one of Robert Altman’s many overlooked classics, Vincent & Theo. Once again, Altman’s vision is appreciated by critics but failed to connect with audiences on a wider level, a recurring motif in Altman’s dazzling career that was so prolific it’s elusive and almost enigmatic. Altman’s run was always a hit-or-miss affair with critics and financial returns, but the eighties were particularly unforgiving to the maverick auteur. Naturally, the affinity Altman feels for the late artist is subtly rumbling throughout. It’s almost as if he can’t help but identify with the prolific man. Originally conceived as a four-hour miniseries sponsored by Canal plus, Altman agreed to the project if he could cut a feature film out of the series.
Vincent & Theo is more reliable in its full form. Still, the feature retains the evocative atmosphere and, as a standalone movie, it’s still a potent venture. Altman distances himself from the romantic conventions and the biographical structure of Lust for Life with a subtly enriching, atmospheric examination into the life of Van Gogh with a particular interest in his sometimes contentious relationship with his art-dealer brother Theo. In the director’s best tradition, he anchors the film with a brilliant cast and lets his leads mold their characters to best suit their vision, lending the film a mercurial depth. Tim Roth’s committed performance is spilling with emotional vulnerability and simmering versatility. Here, Van Gogh is less of a misunderstood outsider, but a roiling ball of febrile tension who yearns for connection with humanity just as much as he tends toward self-appointed exile. It never feels like Tim Roth Altman are trying to “figure out” (a frequent mistake made by filmmakers) Vincent Van Gogh, but illuminates the subject with an immersive psychological perspective.
As the title implies, Vincent’s art dealer brother Theo comes to the fore, providing a more multifaceted examination of the subject, his work and the haughty culture of the art dealing community. This illustrates the additional pressure of dismissal felt by Vincent, thus providing another layer of dimension to the film as it gets into the network of the period.
Vincent & Theo relies on its performers and rightfully so. While Paul Rhys maintains a captivating screen presence as Theo, Roth is stunning at every juncture. Inhibiting his realization with a thick coat of self-destructive aplomb, this Van Gogh rattles with sincere contradiction. Tim Roth can instill every gesture with wavering detachment when we see Vincent reach for something we have no clue what he’s going to do with it, and neither does he. His intentions and the effects of his actions are entirely disconnected.
Vincent & Theo is a singular work that is both beautiful and unnerving as the lush countryside is a place of respite and a sun-stroked terrain of anguish. While Altman’s perspective is rightfully regarded as one of the superb portraits of the late artist, French auteur Marice Pialat would apply his famously understated aesthetic to the countryside of Auvers-Sur-Oise in 1890, fashioning a loose narrative around the final 70 days leading up to Van Gogh’s death with his 1991 film, simply titled Van Gogh. Putting aside any pretensions and conventions Pialat’s vision is somewhat defiant in its quiet resistance; commendably shirking look-alike casting puts Jacques Dutronc in the leading role. He lends a naturalistic, unsympathetic aura; he’s not manic, or fiery but an angular, aged man who’s a little more promiscuous and indulgent than other screen iterations. Vincent’s a workhorse in Pialat’s film, and he refuses to let mental illness and immense talent neuter his interpretation as we see a more sexually active artist – the film explores the love affair between Vincent and the young daughter of his doctor Marguerite (Alexandrea Holland). Van Gogh takes its time and, in it, we discover brilliant scenes of naturalistic beauty and captivating moments in the provincial rituals of preparing meals, eating, drinking, dancing and, of course, painting.
2017 brought us the successfully executed dare of a “painted movie” with Loving Vincent, a beautiful and absorbing yarn that has a slight investigative bent. Taking place a year after Vincent’s death, the film brings his works to life with a swirling whoosh of animated oil paintings that also looks at the final days of his life, theorizing an alternate narrative surrounding Van Gogh’s mysterious death. There’s a sweetness in Loving Vincent and the collaborative inception resounds in its execution with a speculative flourish that’s inessential but interesting nonetheless.
The following year, we’d get another shot of Van Gogh with Julian Schnabel’s 2018 film At Eternity’s Gate putting the ever stalwart Willem Dafoe in front of the canvas. Schnabel’s camera has the weightless omniscience of a recent Terrence Malick feature, and it feels like we’re an aura following Van Gogh throughout the tumultuous summits that punctuate the film. There’s a distinctive spiritual emphasis evoked by the exciting cinematography and ethereal structure as we see a tumbled Dafoe clench his hands and stare at the sky with wide-eyed celestial angst as he wanders through churches and inspiring outdoor vistas. Casting Willem Dafoe in anything is always a good call, whether he’s playing Jesus or a Christlike sergeant in Vietnam. His physical likeness to Van Gogh is visible, but he’s channeling such a strong current of spiritual longing and jangled reverie he weaves a complicated and intriguing portrait. At Eternity’s Gate is richly textured and Dafoe’s portrayal is invigorating as he feels like a pillar of existential curiosity, invigorated and disoriented in a world that is both inspiring and tormenting.
Van Gogh has been dead for over 100 years and cameras have been twirling for longer. And the intrinsic relationship between the moving image with art, fact, fiction, and the aesthetic miasma hovering around the myth of celebrity puts the legacy of Vincent Van Gogh in the chamber of cinemas always loaded magazine of biographical dramas. Is it respect for the misunderstood painter or a feigned appreciation for the high-art status of Van Gogh that escalates these movies to the hallowed ground we’ve seen over the years?