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Theme Tuesday - Vincent Van Gogh - Lust for Life (1956)

In honor of his birthday on March 30th, I will be devoting March to exploring portrayals of the artist Vincent Van Gogh on film.


Lust for Life feels like a travelogue for much of its running time. Perhaps a real Van Gogh nut would get a thrill of seeing some of the places that inspired the artist’s greatest paintings, and I do have to give Minnelli and his location scouts and art consultants credit for going to great lengths to recreate the paintings (a long list of museums with Van Gogh paintings precedes the movie) and find places that were feasible inspirations for his work.

But pretty locations do not make a great piece of drama. With some exceptions, Minnelli leaves a lot of the dramatic drive of the movie up to Kirk Douglas, perhaps one of the greatest overactors ever. I do not mean this as an insult. Overacting requires conviction and unflagging stamina, and I was amazed that Douglas could keep up this intensity for the whole picture. Because of his performance, it becomes believable that Van Gogh’s fervor for missionary work translated so easily into his painting, which became his way of worshiping God. However, Douglas starts at an 11 and stays at that level throughout the movie, robbing the movie of a really urgent narrative drive. It feels as if we are just waiting for the “big hits” of his life to come along, ghoulish as that sounds. (So, when’s he going to cut off his ear?)

The most incisive moment that the movie had was when Paul Gauguin (a very hammy Anthony Quinn) comes to visit Van Gogh in Arles, and they go out painting together. Van Gogh criticizes Gauguin for painting the sky in such a ‘flat” way. Gauguin retorts that this is the way he sees the sky and then lashes out at Van Gogh’s own style, claiming that he paints “too fast.” I wish the movie had pursued this take on subjectivity a little further, especially since Van Gogh’s own way of seeing the world was so different from the way that his peers saw it.

The idea that subjectivity and having a singular point of view are not to be dismissed speaks well to the whole unrecognized genius of Van Gogh image that is popular in today’s culture. But also, such a conviction meant the guy could not have been easy to deal with, and his actions have a real effect on the people around him, especially his younger brother Theo, a figure that I will be paying attention to in every movie since it is because of him that we have Van Gogh at all. This movie isn’t quite ready to explore that level of complexity, and it mostly leans towards making Van Gogh a martyr.

Again, I can’t criticize Minnelli too much since he did deliver the big hits of Van Gogh’s life, which is what most casual moviegoers would have been satisfied with back then and even now. I will be interested to see in the future movies I will be watching about Van Gogh if any of them avoid the traps that Minnelli fell into and hopefully give a more complex version of this story, since I’m going to be watching it so many times.

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