"I would rather die of passion than of boredom."
Vincent van Gogh
Films about famous artists have a very specific appeal, despite a common degree of structural similarity. Artists struggle for recognition, they alienate those close to them and they party like the world is coming to an end. Most importantly of all, they suffer for their art, which a good many of them did, of course. It's easy to forget, at a time when corporate money buckets like Saatchi & Saatchi are poised to throw wads of cash at the next bright young thing, that some of the finest and most important artists of the past couple of centuries lived much of their lives in poverty and died with barely a penny to their name, their work only finding widespread critical and public favour some time after their deaths. These were pioneers at a time when art really mattered, when painting was considered as important as theatre and could stir the sort of controversy and public outrage that even cinema seems incapable of provoking any more.
This image of the struggling artist is exemplified by post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh, whose last name only the Dutch can pronounce properly (the English go with "Goff", while the Americans prefer "Go", but apparently neither is correct). He's one of the few painters that almost everyone appears to have heard of and know something about, the man a former work colleague once succinctly summed up as "that painter who did the sunflowers and cut his ear off."* His work sells for record-busting prices now – in the late 1990s, his 1889 Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear sold for an estimated $80 million – yet despite creating something like nine hundred paintings during his lifetime, Vincent sold only one of them. That his younger brother Théo was a successful art dealer must have really rubbed salt into an already open wound, yet without Théo's continued patronage, Vincent would simply have not been able to paint.
Van Gogh's post-mortem fame, his temperamental nature and his ear-slicing notoriety have also made him something of a filmmaker favourite. I could well be wrong on this, but research suggests that more films and television plays have been made about Vincent van Gogh than any other artist, living or dead. He's also been portrayed by a number of notable actors – Kirk Douglas played him in Vincent Minnelli's 1956 Lust for Life, Tim Roth in Robert Altman's 1990 Vincent and Theo, John Simm in the 2007 TV film The Yellow House, and Benedict Cumberbatch in the 2010 Van Gogh: Painted with Words (also for television). He was even portrayed by renowned director Martin Scorsese in Kurosawa Akira's 1990 Dreams. And that's just five of forty-two screen Vincents listed on IMDb.
One of the most notable is once popular singer turned actor Jacques Dutronc, who in 1991 played the artist in the unfussily titled Van Gogh, the work of former painter and L'enfance-nue, Loulou and Police director Maurice Pialat. It's a film I'd not seen previously but which arrived on UK DVD and Blu-ray brimming with imposing plaudits, labelled by some as Pialat's masterpiece and called "astonishing" by none other than Jean-Luc Godard. It's the sort of intimidating, pre-viewing critical evaluation that no-one tasked with writing their own review should ideally be should exposed to, nudging you as it does towards a very particular response and subtly suggesting that a failure to concur will harm your fragile critical standing. Dislike a film that those with better reputations are raving about and, unless you're an egotist who believes they can see what others cannot, you can't help but feel like the solitary colour-blind member of a peacock appreciation society.
All of which must sound as if I'm building up to something, laying the groundwork for the sort of critical scrotum kick that we rarely deliver here, but that's actually not the case. I'm just not sure I've yet completely made up my mind. Van Gogh is without question an acutely observed, impressively low-key and oddly mesmerising biographical portrait. But is it actually a masterpiece, as has been claimed elsewhere? Ah, now that, like all art, lies in the eye of the beholder...
Van Gogh chronicles the final two-and-a-bit months in the life of this great but troubled artist, which he spent in Auvers-sur-Oise in France in order to be closer to the physician Dr. Paul Gachet, himself a budding painter and supporter of the bolder elements of contemporary art. There is none of the soul-searching anguish so ably expressed by the fiery Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life – Vincent's torments here are so suppressed that those without knowledge of specific details of his life may well find themselves wondering what he really had to complain about. Indeed, as he paints in sun-drenched wheat fields, relaxes with Gachet in his peaceful garden or hangs out with a friend and a gaggle of local prostitutes, I found myself overwhelmed by the desire to dump the baggage of my cluttered lifestyle and hop back in time to this comparatively idyllic vision of 19th Century rural France and join him.
Yet it's this, oddly enough, that provides the film's first hook, a careful recreation of a time and a place that doesn't feel like a recreation at all. What really draws you in, though, is Vincent himself, who here is presented as a thoughtful man of introspective outlook, one who responds to others largely on a need-to-do-so basis. Pialat and Dutronc present us with a Vincent van Gogh that we can easily relate to, one we could imagine sharing a pint with or approaching for advice or even to talk about his work. By stripping van Gogh of his history imposed mystique, the film is able to explore the man around whom legends would later grow, as he converses amiably with locals, talks art with Dr. Gachet, and warily responds to the flirtatious advances of Gachet's daughter Marguerite. All of which proves surprising entrancing, despite the languid pace. What it doesn't really do is burrow beneath the surface to explore the mindset of a man who, just over two months after arriving at Auvers-sur-Oise, shot himself in the chest with a pistol (one that was curiously never found – just imagine what conspiracy theorists would make of that now), which the following day resulted in his untimely death.
By focusing on his final days, Pialat deliberately side-steps some of the more dramatic episodes in Vincent's life, including his tempestuous relationship with fellow painter Paul Gauguin, his work during the time spent at the Saint-Rémy-de-Provence asylum, and the infamous ear-slicing (of which there is no physical evidence here). But knowing that there is a time limit on the life of the title character can't help but colour every scene and add weight to even the smallest of Vincent's frustrations, whose significance will not always be self-evident to those not in the know. Indeed, there's almost the sense that Van Gogh is a film made primarily for viewers who really know their art history, as this knowledge changes how you respond to almost every aspect of Vincent's often guarded behaviour – only then are you able to interpret the true meaning behind his reactions (or in one case non-reaction) to the paintings adorning Dr. Gachet's walls, or why he looks mournfully into the distance when being addressed by Marguerite. Only later, as he inquisitively points a gun at his own head or angrily blows up at Théo, is his underlying torment allowed to escape to the surface.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the film looks terrific, though principal cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel avoids drenching the screen with colour in the manner of Vincent's late career paintings. His subtle and naturalistic approach to lighting may be something a period film standard, but it works a treat here and proves a key contributor to the film's vivid sense of time and place. The camera placement is often as purposeful as it is aesthetically pleasing, framing Vincent through a window in the manner of the picture he is in the process of creating, or positioning him in a wheat field at an angle that can't help but suggest an almost organic bond between him and his location, and that he is somehow conversing with it (see the frame grab above).
Whether all this makes Van Gogh a fresh and distinctive portrait of this celebrated artist or a well intentioned but ultimately ponderous film, one where nothing much happens and emotions are kept in check, will likely prove something of an audience-dividing call. But I would suggest that while no single sequence will necessarily confirm the validity of Godard's lofty claim, watching the film in its entirety without distraction or interruption just might. Nothing in it is specifically attention-grabbing, but over the course of its unhurried 158 minute running time it slowly but lovingly seduces you, climbing into your head and setting up home in that corner of the imagination that responds so much more positively to whispers than shouts. And despite the gentle approach, there are some lively scenes here, and when the film does choose to speak louder – as in Vincent and Théo's wonderfully exuberant night out at a Paris brothel (the formation march in particular filled me with inexplicable glee) – it positively sings.
So is Van Gogh a masterpiece? I'm still not sure. Astonishing, as Godard claims? Well, yes and no. I can't say I was astonished, but over the course of my first viewing I became utterly and completely beguiled by the film and simply cannot get it or Dutronc's portrayal out of my head. Pialat's approach is almost the polar opposite of that taken by Minnelli for Lust for Life, focussing not on conflict or incident but the time spent between. It's an approach most clearly evident in the film's few sexual encounters, where Pialat cuts directly from build-up to conclusion without showing a frame of the act itself – you would almost think the scenes in question had been lopped by the censor, were in not for the poetic precision of the transitional edits. Indeed, the only other van Gogh film that comes readily to mind is Altman's Vincent & Theo of the previous year, which has for some time been my favourite film portrait of this artist. Although in many ways very different, the two films certainly share certainly similarities in tone and content, and there were times when watching Dutronc that I was irresistibly reminded of Tim Roth's quietly commanding performance in Altman's film. Then again, this is hardly surprising, given that both actors were doubtless cast in part because of their physical resemblance to the late career van Gogh as captured by his own paintings.
So yes, Van Gogh is hugely impressive cinema and for my money one of the most convincingly authentic and understated portraits of the struggling artist yet committed to film. Whether it usurps Vincent & Theo as my favourite van Gogh movie is another thing entirely, and a difficult call to make after only a single viewing of Pialat's film. But I have absolutely no trouble classifying the films as artistic equals, and even as I write I am enthusiastically gearing up for a second viewing of Pialat's sometimes spellbinding masterclass in observation and restraint.
A strong 1.66:1 transfer that most attractively captures the film's its earthy colour palette and its subtle and naturalistic use of light. A full contrast range is most attractively rendered, with no burned-out highlights and generally strong shadow detail, with little or nothing sacrificed to achieve rock solid blacks. The crispness and level of detail is consistently impressive, and the fine film grain is only really visible on areas of single colour (skies, some walls). On the rare occasions where bright colours are called for – the vivid blue paint that Vincent applies to his canvas the first time we see him painting outside – they are deliciously rendered. And yes, the wheat fields look lovely.
The Linear PCM 2.0 mono soundtrack is clear and free of damage or distracting background hiss, crucial in a film in which dialogue and the sounds of nature play such an important role.
Van Gogh (1965) (6:40)
An economically structured short documentary made by Maurice Pialat in 1965 that compresses the essence of the main feature into a compact seven minutes. To a travellogue instrumental of Strawberry Fair, the film takes us on a whistle-stop tour of significant Auvers-sur-Oise locations, including ones painted by Vincent (one of which looks more like a work by Millet than van Gogh) and giving a flavour of his influence the area's tourism. In a rather witty edit, shop signs boldly displaying van Gogh's name are followed by the image of a badly faded one named after Cezanne.
Maurice Pialat: 1991 (9:47)
In an extract from an interview by Christian Defaye, Pialat kicks off by suggesting that Van Gogh is "a synthesis of all the problems I had with the other films," then discusses the process of working with Dutronc ("he didn't always do as I asked"), the brothel dancing scene, and the prospect of one day retiring from filmmaking. The very English subtitles suggest that when he's filming he's "as happy as Larry."
Maurice Pialat: 1992 (48:31)
Pialat is interviewed by Michel Denisot in 1992 on the Canal+ show Mon zenith a moi, with occasional filmed questions from critics and one festival organiser and a smattering of cartoons, which are drawn live by an invisible hand. A lot of ground is covered but the interview itself is not always as revealing as you might expect, largely because Pialat is sometimes very evasive, deflecting questions about films and filmmakers he likes, his private life (fair enough), and even his age. He does talk about his working relationship with actors, the pointlessness of critics ("they do more harm than people realise"), the worst thing he ever did (a brutally honest admission), and an apparently famous punch-up with actor Jean Yanne on the set of Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble. Asked if he considers Van Gogh a success, he replies bluntly, "No" (though does elaborate on this), and asked what he would do if offered a blank cheque and complete freedom to make any film he wanted, he suggests that he'd use the money to retire from filmmaking. Tellingly, he at one point states in all seriousness that he would rather have been an average painter than a great filmmaker.
Jacques Dutronc (20:40)
Kitted out with dark glasses, a big cigar and a glass of wine, lead actor Jacques Dutronc is interviewed in what looks like the hilltop garden of his Corsica home about nearly working with Pialat on Loulou back in 1980 and the experience of actually doing so on Van Gogh. It's an interview peppered with engaging anecdotes, but if you're a fluent French speaker and prefer to listen in rather than read the English subtitles, be ready for plenty of wind noise, the occasional loud scrape of Dutronc's foot on gravel (was there a microphone on the ground as well?) and a bird call so loud and shrill that just thinking about it sends a sharp pain through my temple.
Emmanuel Machuel (24:22)
The film's principal cinematographer (he shot the vast majority of the film) outlines how he came to work on Van Gogh and why he eventually walked off it. Pleasingly for us camera types, he also discusses the process of selecting the right film stock, the unplanned impressionist elements, shooting the corn so that it had the feel of van Gogh's paintings, Pialat's determination to keep filming whatever the lighting conditions, and what he believes makes the film work as well as it does.
Yann Dedet (16:01)
More of a detailed introduction to the deleted scenes than a discussion on the Pialat's approach to editing – although this is covered – with reasons supplied why certain sequences and shots were removed. It's still a busy extra – Dedet talks at some speed – and is peppered with revealing stories and interesting comments, my favourite being Dedet's claim that "Editing is cutting shots when you're bored and starting them where you want them."
Deleted Scenes (33:27)
A delicious collection of deleted scenes and alternative takes on ones that remain in the film, all individually fascinating and adding to your understanding of the story and the characters. The condition of the material varies, but many of the shots here are visually striking, with some of the most gorgeous looking footage of the film located here. I'm not about to list the contents – you need to see the film first to fully appreciate the value of this extra material – but it did supply an answer to the question about why Vincent is given a whistle at his lodgings. See, I said you needed to see the film first.
Theatrical Trailer (1:42)
The same one we included with our news story announcing the release of this disc, which is essentially just a short extract from the film.
Another strong Masters of Cinema booklet, containing a fine essay on the film by Sabrina Marques, a reproduction and transcription of Godard's letter of praise to Pialat, a number of quotes from Pialat about his work and particularly Van Gogh, credits for the film, stills, and a poster reproduction.
Despite being engaged from the opening scene, for the opening half-hour or so of my first viewing of Van Gogh I remained a little bemused by the superlatives that had been thrown in its direction, but over the course of the subsequent hour I became completely seduced by the film's atmosphere and characters, and by the end was all too aware that I had watched something very special. This Blu-ray from Masters of Cinema is just superb, boasting a splendid transfer and over two-and-a-half hours of excellent extra features. Highly recommended.
* As it happens, Vincent only sliced off part of his ear, possibly an earlobe or even less, and it's even been suggested – and vigrously disputed – that the injury was actually inflicted by his friend and fellow artist Paul Gaugin.