Despite its somewhat lurid title, "Lust for Life" is a strong and absorbing film biography of nineteenth-century Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh. While the movie is typically melodramatic, as most biopics are, it is seldom less than engaging.
MGM spared little expense in bringing author Irwin Stone's popular book to the screen in 1956, hiring the best director (Vincente Minnelli), producer (John Houseman), composer (Miklos Rozsa), and stars (Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn) they could get; filming in CinemaScope, color, and stereo; and going on location in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands for ultimate authenticity.
At first glance, it may seem odd to a modern moviegoer that the studio chose Vincente Minnelli to direct; after all, he is probably best known for his sparkling musicals--"Meet Me in St. Louis," "An American in Paris," "The Band Wagon," "Brigadoon," "Kismet," "Gigi." But we may forget that he also did serious dramas--"Madame Bovary," "The Clock," "The Bad and the Beautiful," "Tea and Sympathy," "Some Came Running." Likewise, we may think of Kirk Douglas in his prime as simply a stalwart leading man, the swaggering hero of things like "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," "The Indian Fighter," "Ulysses," "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," "The Vikings," and "Spartacus." Again, we may forget his equally effective if less-dashing dramatic roles in "Out of the Past," "Young Man With a Horn," "The Glass Menagerie," "The Bad and the Beautiful," "Paths of Glory," "Lonely Are the Brave," and "Seven Days in May," to name but a few.
In any case, Douglas got one of his best roles in "Lust for Life" and sank his teeth into it, earning an Oscar nomination and winning a Golden Globe and a New York Film Critics Circle Award in the process. Douglas even bore a striking resemblance to the real-life artist, which, along with the location shooting and a plentitude of van Gogh's paintings on display, lends the film an added verisimilitude.
The film is also remarkably accurate in its depiction of van Gogh's short life; well, accurate for a film biography, anyway. It takes up at the point where the artist is trying to decide what to do with himself. Having gone to divinity school but been turned down for a privileged ministerial position, and wanting very much to please his pastor father, van Gogh accepted a post in a poor coal-mining town. There, trying desperately to help his parishioners, he became appalled by the terrible working conditions under which he found the miners laboring. Worse, he found the attitudes of his fellow Christian evangelists hypocritical for their not caring much for the plight of the poor. Van Gogh wanted "to bring something to the world," but clearly he did not find it in the ministry and so renounced the cloth for the brush, much to his father's dismay.
The film concentrates mainly on the last decade of the artist's life, from about 1880 to his death in 1890, the brief period during which van Gogh found his artistic calling, cut off part of his ear, and produced the bulk of his creative output. Ironically, the man never sold a painting until his last year, living off the support of his brother Theo (James Donald), an art dealer in Paris, to keep feed, clothed, and housed; yet today van Gogh is considered one of the greatest of post-Impressionest painters and an important influence on the twentieth-century Expressionist movement.
Minnelli, always the celluloid stylist, attempts to convey in each scene a sense of what van Gogh the artist felt and saw, the director creating color schemes, tones, and lighting effects that reflect the man's paintings. Combine this technique with Douglas's raw energy and his passionate, sometimes over-the-top performance, and you get what at the very least makes for a fascinating movie.
Then, too, there is Anthony Quinn as van Gogh's friend and fellow artist, the temperamental Paul Gauguin. What with Quinn putting in a big, brawling, flamboyant portrayal of an artist every bit as volatile as van Gogh, you'd think that all the parts would be clicking and you'd get a dream of a picture. Yet the movie never quite comes together the way the sum of its parts would suggest.
Perhaps the movie never fully gels because both Douglas and Quinn are much too bigger-than-life in their roles. Perhaps it's because Minnelli is too concerned with local color, historical accuracy, and Hollywood censorship. Perhaps it's because Norman Corwin's adaptation of Irwin Stone's book is too literal and too literate to come fully alive. Or perhaps it's because Miklos Rozsa's musical score, evocative though it may be, is too grandiose and overwrought for its subject matter.
While "Lust for Life" attempts to show us the loneliness and unfulfilled longing of the quintessential tortured artist, the movie never touches the viewer the way it might. It is beautiful to look at, to be sure, and the performances are strongly impassioned; yet in the end we are left with the feeling that we have just experienced another good film biography, not a stirring human drama in the sense of an "Amadeus." The movie, attractive as it may be, never "breaks through the iron wall" between what is felt and what is expressed, the very wall that van Gogh himself strove to overcome.
Oh, well; "Lust for Life" is still a fairly true account of the artist's life, and as such continues to entertain and enlighten, even if it doesn't entirely uplift.
The DVD maintains most of the film's original 2.35:1 CinemaScope aspect ratio, measuring about 2.18:1 across my screen; and the disc's high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfer produces a deep black level that nicely sets off the film's other hues. However, the picture shows a tinge of grain throughout, the colors are somewhat muted, and the overall image is a touch soft and blurred. The Metrocolor that MGM used to produce the film was not known for its enduring quality, but Warner Bros. have apparently touched it up enough to look more than respectable, and there is nary an age mark or moiré effect in sight.
The disc packaging says the soundtrack is reproduced in Dolby Digital Surround Stereo, which seems an odd designation for what my DVD player indicates is DD 5.1. In any case, on disc the movie's original four-track sound has a limited left-to-right stereo spread and even less rear-channel activity. In its favor, voices track well, following characters from side to side rather than being anchored out in the center channel like most of today's films. Violins are a tad hard, though, sometimes even screechy, and bass and dynamics seem compressed. Yet these are only minor distractions when the rest of the soundtrack, particularly the midrange, comes through so well.
The main bonus item on the disc is an audio commentary by film historian Dr. Drew Casper, a Minnelli biographer and film professor at the University of Southern California. He provides quite a good lecture on the film's main character, the film's director, and the filmmaking process. Understand, however, the commentary does come off as rather scholarly--as I say, like a good lecture. It beats the usual director commentary where the speaker points out only the obvious, but it may be too dry for some casual listeners. On the other hand, I've never been too sure who listens to these commentaries, and it might be exactly what an admirer of this film is looking for.
In addition to the commentary, there are thirty-two scene selections, but no chapter insert; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
"Lust for Life" was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Actor (Kirk Douglas); Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Quinn); Best Writing (Norman Corwin); and Best Art Direction/Set Decoration (Cedric Gibbons, Hans Peters, E. Preston Ames, Edwin B. Willis, and F. Keogh Gleason). Although some people may question why only Quinn took home an Oscar, and for so little relative screen time, you can see how the other nominees would have also been worthy recipients of the honor. As it is, we have the movie, which may not be entirely as elevating as it could be but is plenty good enough.