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I've seen this movie several times now, and every time with enjoyment
and great appreciation.
The acting by Douglas and Quinn is truly first rate. It's a shame Douglas didn't get the best actor Oscar for which he was so deservedly nominated, but competition that year in that category was fierce. He truly makes you feel van Gogh's frightened agony, both at not being able to achieve what he wanted in his art and his fear of approaching insanity. (It ran in van Gogh's family; he knew what was coming.)
But I also enjoy the great efforts made to reproduce the scenes van Gogh painted, whether in Holland, Arles, or outside Paris. That couldn't have been easy, but if you know van Gogh's work, it really adds to the effect the movie makes.
There are times when the characters speak like an art history textbook - though those painters did love to discuss their theories on art, as you see in their letters.
Still, I consider this to be one fine movie. Whether it gives an accurate depiction of van Gogh or Gauguin is beside the point. It's based on a novel by Irving Stone, who didn't hesitate to change facts to make for a book that would sell; it's not a BBC documentary, and shouldn't be judged as such. It does a great job of showing us the torments of a great painter, and gives us some idea of what van Gogh was up to. That's more than enough for me.
When I first heard Hollywood had made a film about a great artist and Kirk Douglas(although a fine actor) was the lead I thought automatically of how poor it would be. But i was very wrong, I really consider this, if not a great film then certainly a very very good one. It pleasantly surprised me with its use of Van Gogh's artistry as somewhat the main character. Its a solid cast also, James Donald is quite interesting in the part of Theo(Vincents brother), Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin is very good(he won the Oscar for supporting actor)although his part is very small, and Kirk Douglas gives probably the best performance I've seen him give in a film. The soundtrack is also very powerful and Vicente Minnelli certainly puts in a good shift in this thoroughly enjoyable film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A common romantic cliché is the great artist suffering for his art.
Scorned or neglected by his contemporaries, he lives in poverty and
dies in obscurity, only to be appreciated by posterity after his death.
As far as painting is concerned, however, this cliché does not
generally accord with the facts. Most of those we now regard as great
artists, from Giotto to Picasso, were honoured by their contemporaries,
earned considerable wealth from their art and died rich and famous. If
Rembrandt died a bankrupt, that had more to do with his inability to
live within his means than with any lack of appreciation of his work.
Vincent Van Gogh is the great exception, the one great artist whose life really did seem to be taken straight from a melodrama. He did indeed live in poverty in a garret in Paris (the spiritual home of every artist starving for his art). He never made a living from his work, only sold one painting and relied upon his brother for financial support. He suffered from mental instability, spent time in an asylum, sliced off part of his ear and committed suicide while in his thirties. After his death, however, he achieved the fame which eluded him in life; had he lived another twenty years, or perhaps even only another ten, he would have seen himself become one of the most famous men in Europe.
He is therefore an ideal subject for a filmed biography, and was fortunate to find a director as gifted as Vincente Minnelli to make it. The early part of the film deals with Van Gogh's unsuccessful attempt to become an evangelist in the Borinage, an industrial district of Belgium, where he alienated his flock with his tedious, rambling sermons and his superiors by his insistence on living in poverty. (The Church authorities felt that Christ's injunction to sell all you have and give the proceeds to the poor was not to be taken literally; Van Gogh felt that it was). The film follows his early days as an artist in Paris, his move to Arles in Provence, his ill-fated collaboration with Paul Gauguin, his days in the asylum at St-Remy and his eventual suicide in Auvers-sur-Oise.
Vincent was also fortunate to find an actor as talented as Kirk Douglas- who bore a certain physical resemblance- to play him. This is one of Douglas's best performances, and I am always surprised that he did not win the Oscar he so richly deserved. (There are several contenders for "Greatest Actor Never to Win an Oscar", but Douglas must be a strong one). In my view he deserved it more than Yul Brynner, who did win in 1956 for "The King and I". Although Brynner is certainly good, Douglas goes far beyond the merely good, and his characterisation of Van Gogh has more emotional depth than Brynner's King Mongkut. Anthony Quinn did win a well-deserved "Best Supporting Actor" award for his role as Gauguin, and there is another valuable contribution comes from James Donald as Van Gogh's devoted brother Theo.
One criticism that has been made of Douglas is that he plays Van Gogh as "too sane", but this is not a view which I share. Whereas Vincent undoubtedly suffered from mental health problems which culminated in his suicide, that is not the same as saying that he was "insane"; he had a complex personality, of which his periodic bouts of ill-health formed only a part. His art is emphatically not the art of a madman; it could only have been produced by a sane mind, and many of his paintings display a joy and serenity which would surprise those who insist on seeing him solely as a "tormented genius". (This sense of joy was doubtless the reason why Irving Stone, who wrote the biographical novel on which the film was based, chose "Lust for Life" as his title). Much has been made of his late painting "Wheatfield with Crows" which features prominently in this film, and its dark, threatening atmosphere has been interpreted as being symbolic of his troubled state of mind. Yet even in the last days of his life he was capable of producing more tranquil works, such as his "The Plain of Auvers". One thing which comes out in the film is the extent to which Van Gogh's artistic vision was a religious one; he may have lost interest in formal organised religion after his experiences in the Borinage, but his art was nevertheless intended to express what he saw as a spiritual reality underlying nature.
Another feature of the film is the way in which it reflects Van Gogh's art. In the early part of the film, especially the scenes set in the Borinage, the tones are sombre, earthy ones, dominated by greys and browns, reflecting the palette found in the painter's early works such as "The Potato Eaters". Later on Minnelli uses much brighter, luminous colours, reflecting the way in which Van Gogh's art itself developed in the latter part of his career, especially after his move to the Mediterranean sunshine of Provence. Unfortunately, the colour film on which the movie was shot has deteriorated over the years, which means that the colours have faded somewhat since 1956. This is a strange example of life imitating art. In some of his paintings Van Gogh used unstable pigments, especially the reds; what, for example, was originally a picture of a vase of pink roses now appears to show white ones.
A single film cannot hope to do full justice to a personality as varied as Vincent Van Gogh. Nevertheless, "Lust for Life", however, is a very fine attempt to tell his story. With the exception of the more recent "Girl with a Pearl Earring", about Vermeer, it is the best filmed biography I know of an artist. 9/10
Lust for life is a beautifully shot film and a reasonably accurate
portrayal of van gogh's troubled life! Kirk Douglas as the lead gives
arguably his best screen performance - only his performance as the
rebel slave Spartacus comes close i feel. But for me one of the things
that stands out most about this film - which no one else appears to
have commented on yet - is the exquisite score by the legendary film
score composer miklos rozsa! This is one of rozsa'a richest and lushest
scores - beautiful but at the same time haunting. If like me you're a
fan of rozsa and his mesmerising work you'll enjoy this movie just for
the score alone.
Rozsa is up there with morricone, barry and nyman for film score compositions, but sadly does not seem to have received the acclaim those 3 great film composers have.
This year I had the chance to watch two movies about the life and work
of one of the most important artists of all time, Vincent Van Gogh:
"Vincent and Theo" directed by Robert Altman; and "Lust for Life"
directed by Vincente Minnelli. The first one disappointed me despite
all the good intentions of director and the performance of Tim Roth. It
didn't impressed me as much as critics say. But Minnelli's film is
excellent, well acted, and according to the viewers that are more
familiar with Van Gogh's life, even more accurate than the recent
movie. And the movie had the opportunity to show some of his great
works, courtesy of several museums credited during the end.
Van Gogh is played by a surprising and inspired Kirk Douglas (who worked with Minnelli in the brilliant "The Bad and The Beautiful"). An uncomprehending and tormented soul in an internal and troubled search for love, friendship and happiness, whether trying to be a God's preacher in a poor town where he sees the beauty of the hard working people but also realizes the hypocrisy of the people who sent him there to preach the gospel without giving assistance to the poor children, men and women working dangerously at the coal mines, or trying to discover the tricks and skills of the great masters of painting like Gauguin (Anthony Quinn) and the effect they reach through many portraits and paintings.
The art direction is fantastic, the excellent music is well used in the tragic and dramatic moments. The screenplay is quite good, very clever for a biographical movie, without flashbacks that sometimes bores people to death. And again the acting is superb, heartbreaking and wonderful. Douglas portrays the artist in all of his pain, misery, talent, joy, inspiration, sickness and health, really lived and breathed the character. Quinn as Gauguin appears briefly but impresses a lot playing the high spirited friend of Van Gogh, trying to not succumb to the state of fragility of his depressive friend. And on a 23 minute appearance won his second Oscar as Supporting Actor. Douglas should've won that year for best actor. It's one of the top performances of the 1950's and of all time.
One of the most frightening and beautifully acted scenes in this film is the first heated discussion about art between the two artists. Both men were really trying to state a point of view about what real art is, defending some artist and complaining about another one, and then they're almost punching each other, the background music plays loudly and they stop. Quinn and Douglas got so much in their characters that you actually get scared by all the intensity they brought to the scene. That's great and doesn't happen all the time in movies! 10/10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The brightness of the sunflowers, a masterpiece by Van Gogh.
Unfortunately, his life wasn't anywhere as bright. Emotionally
conflicted in a life where he felt he could not achieve, Van Gogh was
certainly doomed as a man of tragedy.
Such is the material that Kirk Douglas had to work with in portraying this master painter. Douglas turned in a riveting, memorable, totally brilliant performance and in this writer's estimation, he was totally robbed of the Academy Award for best actor in 1956. Yul Brynner's win for "The King and I," was shocking to say the least. It was bad enough that Heston and Brynner were denied best actor nominations for "The 10 Commandments" that year, but Douglas losing brought a bitter taste to a film goer's mouth.
On the other hand, Anthony Quinn was the surprising winner for best supporting actor in his brief stint as the selfish Paul Gaugin.(Robert Stack-"Written on the Wind!")
You feel the pain that Douglas portrayed in this film. It will be etched in our memories for ever. A crowning achievement of epic proportions. They don't get much better than this.
"I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the
"I dream of painting and then I paint my dream;"
"I wish they would only take me as I am" (Vincent Van Gogh).
I have selected the three thoughts of the great artist because they not only seem to resemble the core idea of this 'modern' biopic but also evoke its 'experimental narrative' (Dr Drew Casper)...the narrative so much influenced by Van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo, the source of inspiration in the literary source by Irving Stone. There is something that may strike you in these lines: the first being the primordial paradox of artistic conflict between efforts and consequences, the second being an aspiration of true genius' passions, the third being an eternal combat within an individual struggle of 'conformity' vs. 'individuality,' something so memorably penned by Dr Drew Casper.
But LUST FOR LIFE, as one of the key movies of post-war cinema, has stood a test of time not merely due to its subject matter but thanks to its director, Vincente Minelli. The art of painting and the art of the screen seem to simultaneously correspond to each other in an intriguing harmony. Van Gogh's genius and Minelli's perfectionism blend. Thanks to that unique collaboration, Dr Drew Casper allows himself to call LUST FOR LIFE "Minelli's labor of love" for very justifiable reasons. The works of both were equally unique and individual.
Every artist, in a way, is a unique, individual and an extremely intrinsic personality who explains, explores, expresses and echoes his inner self through his achievements, his works of art. What fascinates us all about these personalities is not something we are all used to but something different, something thought provoking, something that seems to bring us all to the awe of what we perceive beyond our senses. That freedom from the touch of one inner world, taking the author as he/she is and letting oneself be absorbed by the whisper of his/her inspiration. The tremendous contribution of the director and his stuff, including the fine effects of color and de-centering camera-work cannot be ignored; yet, the most interesting aspect in such films is how the protagonist is portrayed; here, by one of the legendary Hollywood figures, Kirk Douglas.
Undeniably in one of his life roles, he depicts a man of struggle within various phases of his life. Seen as "agitated but not ambitious, restless and unable to control his passions yet decisive and bold" but the one who "ranges from forlorn sullenness to hysterical rage, from tender nuance to joyous exhilaration" (Carter B. Horsley), a brave performer who 'breaks the heroic idea of character' (Casper), Douglas appears to be an altogether memorable Van Gogh. Throughout the span of 12 years of the artist's life, Douglas depicts changeable moods and heavy torments that can go on their own only for some time. He is most intriguing and passionate at the encounter with other artists or rather an artist he meets among the impressionists and post-impressionists in Paris, that is Paul Gaugin portrayed by another legend, Anthony Quinn.
For the first time paired together, the actors are all but pathetic. Vibrant and lively artistic personalities that supply the film with desirable vigor in, as Horsley rightly observes, a 'classic clash of titans of the mind and the heart;' or rather in an 'absinthe-fulled roller-coaster bromance" (Alex Von Tummelmann, the Guardian). Their scenes shine with unforgettable energy, unique tensions and storms raging within as they embody creation agonies. While Van Gogh seems to 'paint too fast' Gaugin appears to 'look too fast;' while Gaugin is direct, vigorous, honest, Van Gogh is a caged soul heavily influenced by his upbringing environment who dreams others to see him as he is and struggling for futile work. While Gaugin cannot stand any mental nor physical confusion, Van Gogh is the 'chaos' incarnate. Although Von Tummelmann labels the Paul Gaugin of Anthony Quinn humorously as 'a male English literature teacher having a mid-life crisis at a girls' school,' the actor delivers something edgy, something powerful after all these years. Luckily, though, they may compete on the screen from time to time, they may force their viewpoints, yet, they manage to remain unique as the performers and the artists. With that in mind, Van Gogh's suffering becomes 'extremely fascinating' (Horsley).
As a relief come Van Gogh's relations with his brother Theo (James Donald). Here, there is nothing that highlights their pure passions but rather inner worlds, life taken holistically and its sufferings shared with a brotherly soul. There are lines Van Gogh says to his brother that he would never say to other people.
Seemingly, the best thing that LUST FOR LIFE still does when we view it is the adventurous spirit over the conventional, the free over the caged, the dreamlike over the realistic. The magnificent use of Van Gogh's masterpieces within the context of the screen additionally supplies the movie with the surprising relation between the screen and the canvas. There would be far more things to mention about the film if it were not for the word limit that, in a way, forces me to make it all more condensed. Among a number of its merits, the score by great Miklos Rozsa needs a special notice.
An important movie to see about an unconventional personality who strives throughout his short life; yet, who, perhaps, loses his mind in the process but who can really paint his dream and bring on canvas the sublime light reflected in beauty of life, in beauty of nature, something that he managed to discover within personal freedom.
Isn't such a discovery at hand within all of us? What is left for man if not true passion, true lust for such discovery?
It might be a little unfair of me to say why Lust for Life didn't
completely overwhelm me or that maybe the reason I didn't think it was
quite the best or wildest portrayal of one of the great artists,
period, because seeing Robert Altman's 1990 film Vincent and Theo
before Vincente Minelli's 1956 widescreen Hollywood film did it for me
so much more. For everything that made Altman's film stand out so much
in comparison, Minelli's film becomes slightly more-so conventional, or
just conventional in that lush "Hollywood-ized" setting (oddly enough
both films were shot in European locations for authenticity). If I were
asked by a friend or just anyone what Vincent Van Gogh film to check
out first, my inclination would now probably be for Altman's film, even
if it is, admittedly, a slightly more difficult picture to take at
And yet despite the personal preference, I also would still recommend Minelli's film. In fact for the certain movie buff, this film provides really rich rewards that are uncommon in any film of the 1950s: getting inside what made an artist so obsessive and passionate and, ultimately, volatile like Van Gogh tick and run on life's energy and pour it into his paintings. The script is literate and delicate and when need be even intimate in relaying the spirit of this man in a rise-fall-rise-fall-deeper-fall scenario, and Minelli's direction is crisp and clear, using color for all its worth (some of the shots may be obvious- "hey, there's Van Gogh's room, like the painting, or there's the famous café from the other painting", etc). Just being able to see the abundance of work that this man created is inspiring enough, but what's so fascinating is how influential Van Gogh can be when he's at his best and brightest: a staggering, daring, half-cuckoo-half-lucid figure that represents the drive of the artist when pushed to limits of creative invention and spirit.
But really, if for nothing else, it is great to see it or Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh, and to a lesser extent (soaking it up for all 12 minutes is worth) Anthonty Quinn as Gaugin. Douglas has a fantastic showcase here, as an actor who balances between being a real marvel of harrowing emotions and something of a pure ham-bone (watch as he screams and wails and comes to the pivotal moment of cutting off his ear to see what I mean), but he pulls it off like one would hope Douglas could; this is in fact one of his best, to the point where one is totally lost in Van Gogh's total three-dimensions as a man and artist. Quinn, as well, explodes with vitality and even a little subtlety when it can sneak in, providing for the two stars to spar off in some of the most charged scenes of the picture. You almost expect them to start a boxing match with how volcanic the emotions can get, screaming and wailing and eyes flared up. If for nothing else, for some good chunks of time, it's also a lot of fun, as a kind of near-classic of its time and one of those portraits of an artist people go back to again and again. 9.5/10
The title of this film could just as easily have been the title of Kirk Douglas's autobiography and Kirk Douglas talks about this film as if it had a great deal of meaning for him. Although I think he gives Van Gogh a gregariousness that I don't think he had (but I might be wrong) there has never been a better portrayal of Van Gogh. In the last year or so John Simm and Andy Serkis have played Van Gogh in British drama-documentaries but they can't compare with Kirk Douglas. When Lust for Life was made Van Gogh was still within living memory in Arles and Auvers and a few of the older people saw Kirk Douglas and exclaimed "il est retourné!". If you're an art buff and are familiar with Van Gogh's work you recognise Jules Roulin and Père Tanguy right away in the film. Actors who bear very close resemblances to the people they portray were cast for the film. Anthony Quinn deserved his Oscar for his portrayal of Gauguin who like him was a larger-than-life character. I read it was the shortest performance to win a best actor Oscar and it was only 3 minutes or so long. I must admit it seems longer than 3 minutes. After the premiere John Wayne, who as the world knows had very set ideas on what a man had to do, told Kirk Douglas he was disappointed in him for playing such a weak character. Kirk replied that he was an actor and that he had to play all kinds of roles and it is very clear he was not ashamed, in fact of all the roles he's played this seems to be one of which he's very proud. He also shows Van Gogh's insensitivity, such as when he makes some very cruel remarks to his cousin Kay who is still coming to terms with her widowhood and he comes on to her so intensely that she disowns him. This scene also made me think the real Van Gogh must have been perversely attracted to woman in black. As Kay's husband had died less than a year before she was dressed in black. Before the time frame of this film when Van Gogh was in London he had fallen madly in love with his landlady's daughter, Eugenia Loyer. Her father had also recently died and she was always dressed in black at the time he knew her. Generally, though, he could be a bit obsessive about women, in fact the people of Arles presented a petition to their mayor demanding that Van Gogh be removed from the town as, among other things, he kept on leching at the women. Dr Gachet is portrayed in the film but his daughter Margeurite isn't. Van Gogh painted her playing the piano but Doctor Gachet, knowing Van Gogh's lecherousness, kept him well away from his daughter most of the time. This film sums up the tragic waste of Van Gogh's life. He struggled with poverty and failure all his short life but if he had not killed himself he may well have died a rich man. It's an indication of how much his paintings sell for nowadays when Kirk Douglas said he couldn't afford to buy one of them.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Maybe this 1956 film, made the year I was born, hasn't aged well, but I
never quite believed the protagonist here was anyone other than Kirk
Douglas of New York City.
The biopic tries to convey how lonely, ostracized, and exasperated the artist was, but Douglas's portrayal seemed a little too large for the setting and his exaggerated reactions to things started to grate. Granted, Van Gogh likely was a schizophrenic with some very troublesome behavior but somehow this depiction didn't quite satisfy.
The film does a good job of taking us for an art tour through van Gogh's life, as we watch his work develop from the more understated to the exquisitely expressionistic (i.e., Starry Starry Night).
This film prompted me to look up the author on Wikipedia. Irving Stone researched the source for this film mostly by reading Van Gogh's letters.
Clearly Van Gogh was a tortured person but I wonder if we'd gain a more nuanced idea of him by sticking with the book.
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