Vincent Van Gogh is the archetypical tortured artistic genius. His obsession with painting, combined with mental illness, propels him through an unhappy life full of failures and unrewarding relationships. He fails at being a preacher to coal miners. He fails in his relationships with women. He earns some respect among his fellow painters, especially Paul Gauguin, but he does not get along with them. He only manages to sell one painting in his lifetime. The one constant good in his life is his brother Theo, who is unwavering in his moral and financial support.Written by
John Oswalt <email@example.com>
Biopics are tricky things to get right. That is one of the reasons why so many classic Hollywood versions of true stories are so liberal with the facts – storifying history in order to bring out the spirit or the legend of the subject. There have also been more recent productions which, in their devotion to historical accuracy, suck all the life out of the picture. It is a rare thing indeed then to find a biopic that sticks to the truth but also really brings us a vivid character in an engaging story.
Lust for Life begins with Vincent's journey in mid-flow, with a brief episode in which he worked as a preacher in a dirty mining town. It is as if we are observing the man from a distance, and indeed director Vincente Minnelli actually keeps his camera well back from the subject for the first fifteen minutes or so. Van Gogh's talent for painting is not referenced verbally, but sketches gradually begin to appear in the background. It's a very tentative introduction to the man, but it gives us his character and background through example rather than direct statement, and rather than highlighting his turning to art shows it as an almost incidental extension of his way of life. Screenwriter Norman Corwin (who normally worked in radio) draws from Vincent's letters to his brother Theo for a gentle and unobtrusive narrative, and the production makes extensive use of actual locations and colour prints of van Gogh's paintings, all the better for his work to speak for itself.
Director Vincente Minnelli was himself a painter, albeit one of a rather different style to van Gogh, but his painterly instinct for space and colour helps very much in creating the harmonious look of Lust of Life. He was one of the few directors from this early stage of widescreen who knew what to do with the Cinemascope aspect ratio. His technique is to soften the width by composing in depth. Take set-ups like Mauve's studio or the little flat Vincent shares with Christine, in which the furniture and canvasses create many layers in depth, giving real definition to the space and making the wide shape of the screen seem more natural. Often the screen seems loosely divided into two parts, with foreground business on one side and a distant vanishing point on the other, and Minnelli uses this to create smaller frames for different actors on the screen or to highlight one person or another. This in turn minimises the need for cuts to opposing angles or close-ups, which tend to look awkward in Cinemascope.
In the lead role, Kirk Douglas not only bears a passable resemblance to van Gogh, he really immerses himself in the character to the extent that you forget the familiarity of the actor and see only the painter. Vincent may be the archetypal tortured artist but Douglas resists the temptation to become wild or hysterical, more often showing emotional turmoil in tense body language and silent screams. In lighter moments he displays a kind of boyish enthusiasm which really helps to make a likable character out of van Gogh. In contrast Anthony Quinn's supporting role as Paul Gauguin is exaggerated and theatrical where Douglas is subtle and realistic, but it highlights the difference between the two men and helps to make Quinn's short but crucial part in the story lively and memorable.
Above I feel what really makes Lust for Life work is that it understands it subject matter. There is a clear respect for van Gogh's work from writer, director and star, and an intention to allow the audience to share in this appreciation. The effort that has gone into comparing real scenes to finished paintings, and the dialogue that touches upon art theory show how his approach to painting dovetails into his highly emotional and philanthropic character. It is this that lends a sense of meaning and poignancy to the depiction of his tragic life.
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