In general, I’m a fan of van Gogh movies—a pretty nifty micro-genre because those films examine our ingrained notions about the intrinsic relationship between artistic genius on the one hand and mental illness, poverty, and ostracism on the other.
There are two major aesthetic choices that any director making a van Gogh movie must make: (1) how your own cinematic style will comment on or parallel van Gogh’s painterly aesthetics, and (2) how the main actor will portray van Gogh’s madness. Given the subject matter, the director’s own style in these movies takes on a more significant role than in your average film. The most respected movies on the subject remain Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956), with Kirk Douglas bellowing melodramatically as a tortured soul, and Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh (1991), with Jacques Dutronc almost sleepwalking through the picture like an apathetic desk clerk. Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo (1990), with Tim Roth perfectly fine in the lead role, would probably take third place; it’s a surprisingly underwhelming, surprisingly un-Altmanesque movie, a bit like a well-made Masterpiece Theater production.
Minnelli and Pialat’s visual schemes demonstrate how much stylistic variety one could achieve in films like these. Minnelli designed painterly scenes and shot three-minute takes from a distant position to allow his actors to express themselves with their entire bodies. And he imbued his images with meaning: when van Gogh and Gauguin argue about the theory of painting, Minnelli designs the set so that each painter occupies half of the screen, the backgrounds behind them almost perfectly symmetrical to highlight their shared aesthetic, with the subtle differences exemplifying their competing aesthetics. At first blush, Pialat seems much less interested in the expressive aspects of cinematic style. He seems instead to be invested in an understated naturalism, almost as an implicit critique of the culture’s assumptions about van Gogh’s extravagant madness; that is, he seems to have intentionally positioned himself as the anti-Minnelli. But on closer inspection, he too is obsessed with the expressive powers of mise en scène. He set his entire movie during van Gogh’s final months during his stay in Auvers-sur-Oise under the care of the eminent Dr. Gachet, and so Pialat seems at times to be more interested in portraying Gachet’s backyard, the quotidian reality of village life circa 1890, and of wind blowing through skinny trees along riverbanks, the perfect emblem of the languor of summer.
So I was excited when I heard that Julian Schnabel was directing a film about van Gogh—not because I’m a Schnabel fan. In fact, I’d say that I’ve always thought that his paintings were pleasant to look at but seemed to have gained their fame from his canvases’ elephantine dimensions rather than from their skill, and I’ve found his movies to be equally pleasant, but decidedly middle-brow. That being said, the idea of a painter making a movie about a painter was exciting.
I was hoping that his background might break the intellectual logjam of the van Gogh biopic. Rather than wrestling with the same set of elements—his complicated relationship with his brother, his debates with Gaugin, his mental deterioration, I was hoping, Schnabel might be able to shed new light on the expressive power of the mise en scène, but also maybe to shed light on the process of painting itself, so that we might see the brush touching the canvas, see a hand applying globs of paint, see van Gogh’s speed and facility with the brush, see how he built up his textural layers, and to hear him daubing the canvas with paint, a sensual appreciation of genius. Maybe I was just hoping for a much more intensive version of Víctor Erice’s Quince Tree Sun, a mesmerizingly detailed documentary of the painter Antonio López Garcia at work.
But no. For the most part, Schnabel falls into the mold that his antecedents have laid out before him. He focuses—as they mostly do—on the final years of van Gogh’s life out in the country at Arles and Auvers. We see Gauguin (played here like a vapid underwear model by Oscar Isaac); we see his brother Theo; we see Dr. Gachet. And stylistically, Schnabel makes little effort to think visually in any striking way. He didn’t seem particularly interested in the expressive powers of mise en scène: it’s hard to design the image, after all, when every shot is composed by a dizzying hand-held camera that roves arbitrarily between decentered medium shots and canted hyper-close-ups. That being said, the film is highly aestheticized. But most of his aesthetic decisions involve coming up with different methods of portraying van Gogh’s deteriorating mental state, which inevitably results in a cliched panoply of visual analogues for mental illness that any freshman undergraduate might come up with: point-of-view shots that look like they’ve been smeared with Vaseline, jerky hand-held camera movements, and vertiginously rushed Steadicam shots that are supposed to manifest van Gogh’s nervous excitement. But it’s not just the unthinking nature of these choices that bothered me; it’s that Schnabel seems to have applied them in a willy-nilly fashion. Some of van Gogh’s POV shots have that unfocused, blurred quality, but some don’t. The blurred vision doesn’t seem to increase in concert with his mental decline. So what informs this visual metaphor? It’s not quite clear. We also see POVS from other people’s perspective. If you’re trying to use film style to explicate the protagonist’s mental state, why would you do that? It all seems fairly random.
I always like Willem Defoe, but he seems to be drifting through this movie, his emotions pitched closer to Dutronc than to Douglas. But he plays van Gogh like a simpleton, which he was not. He never achieves—or seems to seek out—the emotional intensity of the paintings themselves. He’s never passionate or insane; if anything, he seems confused—frustrated, maybe. I know that Kirk Douglas’s performance strikes many viewers today as histrionic, but I much prefer him: his highly aestheticized bellowing seems to get closer to the Kabuki-like unreality of the paintings. And Minnelli’s compositions are stunning.
If I had to choose a favorite van Gogh film, I think I’d still pick Lust for Life (as much as I admire Pialat’s work). The best thing I can say about the Schnabel version was that I enjoyed the experience of watching it. But then I say that about most movies.