There's nothing like a well-done, accurate biography. Besides the typical movie delights, you also have the distinct feeling that you're peeking through a hole and looking at an aspect of history that the books seem to have ignored. So I approached "Van Gogh" (1991) with eagerness. After all, here was the bio of a famous Dutch post-impressionist who lived and painted in France, produced in France by the French.
The scenery is wonderful and the performances are strong, but I have to confess that the peephole business gets a little old after a while. That's because there's no real story arc to speak of in "Van Gogh," and not nearly the episodes of emotional highs and lows that you'd expect from a story about one of the most famously tormented artists. We're talking about whack-an-ear-off Van Gogh, mind you. But director Maurice Pialat decided to take a more realistic, rather than dramatic route, and we watch a manic depressive Van Gogh struggle with his inner demons during roughly the last two months of his life. It's not a struggle full of shouting and intense moments. Instead (and probably truer to medical form), we get a painter who alternately shuns alcohol and then jumps off the wagon again, a brooding man who is able to love but cannot love anything or anyone more than his painting.
During the period that Van Gogh was sent to Auvers sur Oise by his brother, Theo (Bernard Le Coq), to convalesce after the famous ear incident, the talented artist painted more than one complete canvas every day--a prolific spate over some 67 days that has to rank among the art world's most impressive.
Pialat has a good eye for composition, and a number of his frames feel like paintings themselves. For this, too, credit cinematographers Gilles Henry and Emmanuel Machuel. Placed in settings that seem so historically accurate, Jacques Dutronc excels as Van Gogh, giving us an understated performance that feels plugged into the real psyche of the artist. So too does Alexandra London dazzle us as the 13-year-old daughter of Dr. Gachet (Gérard Séty), the physician who will tend to Van Gogh and also give him a place to stay in exchange for paintings.
If you approach this film as a real-time and honest biography that, like all of our lives, is full of moments that are neither highs nor lows, you'll be plenty entertained. It's just that suspending all of our movie sensibilities is tough to do, and the lack of a traditional narrative structure may be too much for some viewers to bear. Eventually, the movie starts to feel the weight of every second of its 159 minutes. That's the biggest complaint, really. In his apparent commitment to be a biographer of sensitivity and accuracy, Pialat had to give up some of the filmmaker's dramatic license.
Everything proceeds leisurely until the very end, when Van Gogh falls off the wagon and heads for Paris to party with fellow artist Toulouse Lautrec. But the post-impression you're left with isn't anything dramatic. Rather, it's that you've just witnessed a slide show about an artist and his work, seeing frame after frame through the eyes of a tormented artistic genius.
"Van Gogh" is rated "R" for sexuality and nudity.
For a 1991 film that's not mastered in Hi-Def, "Van Gogh" looks pretty good in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen. The colors are thankfully fully saturated, black levels are strong, and the slight amount of grain throughout actually adds to our sense of the action taking place in 1890.
The audio is nothing special--French Dolby Digital Mono, with subtitles in English and French. During some of the Can-Can scenes in Paris you actually get a fuller sound than I expected . . . or maybe I was distracted by the visuals!
The only extras are a handful of deleted scenes (which come as a surprise, because it doesn't feel as if director Pialat had the discipline to cut anything) and the theatrical trailer.
"Van Gogh" is a beautiful film, but one which moves so slowly that you feel as if you're watching paint dry.