(Maurice Pialat, France, 1991)
Pialat's interest in Van Gogh is neither academic nor practical; despite Pialat's own history as a painter, and his reverence for the medium, which he favored above all, even cinema, his considerations of painting itself are mostly absent from Van Gogh. The work is not the point; Van Gogh could be a musician and the movie wouldn't be terribly different. Van Gogh the dreamer, whose notion of beauty as a worldly miracle, and of the kind of society that might better appreciate its creation, doesn't make an appearance. Neither does Van Gogh the lonely, spiritual pilgrim, who would with childlike naivete seek Gaugin's partnership in an arcadian painter's colony. Pialat at times seems almost perversely self-restrained, denying his own affections in order to purge the film of sentimentality or grandiosity. What is left is a steely, hardened look at a long-suffering man as he stumbles bitterly towards a bleak, self-inflicted end.
And yet, for all of that, the film is undeniably, irrepressibly gorgeous, and contains moments of pure joy. Pialat shoots with a painter's eye - it has to be admitted, however cliched it might sound - and his natural feeling for emotions is breathtaking. Still, there is a risk in the way Pialat presents his hero. In the film, Van Gogh has the aura of a Christ about him - an enormous amount of the film's gravity is generated by Lutronc, whose weary, ironic mein speaks volumes with a single glance - and that's part of the trouble. Lutronc and Pialat's Van Gogh is perhaps too inscrutable, too tempestuous, and yet too assured in his march to oblivion. His suffering most often takes the form of anger, and by the end we are made to understand that while his faith in his own greatness is complete (he bitterly rebukes his brother for selling paintings by everyone but "the greatest of our time," meaning himself), it's the world's and his brother's indifference that drives him to suicide. His fits, he also reveals, were dissimulations; he isn't truly mad but rather driven to desperate measures by neglect. (It's possible that this is a lie designed to upset Théo; in any case, its ambiguity suggests at least a canny, manipulative person, driven as much by jealousy as by mental instability. The point here isn't to demand a more virtuous Van Gogh, but that the vision offered in the film has a strangely narrow attitude towards suffering, which can at times seem to mirror Pialat's own legendary irascibility.) His slightly stooped posture isn't due to an external burden but to an intense, dark, inwardly-focused energy, as if some essential part of him thrives off of the idiocy of the world, and revels in denying it the full glory of his genius.
Pialat's Van Gogh seems to carry the secret of his own future success, and his dyspepsia, selfishness, and sorrow at neglect can therefore have the appearance of resentment, and his recurrent hauteur the just desserts of an unheralded hero. But Pialat is too good a storyteller to leave it at that, and so he gives us glimpses of other versions of Van Gogh: the playful Vincent, the tender Vincent, even the loyal Vincent, who is willing to sacrifice anything, it would seem, for his beloved family. He is thus an exquisitely conflicted person, hurt and bitter, noble and kind. Pialat's own bleak view of the human scene would be unbearable if he didn't also show us the bright side, the moments of potential goodness. He is at his weakest when he insists upon churlish outbursts of familial recrimination; at his strongest, I think, when he looks with sudden, unearned sympathy on the limitations of enormously willful, difficult people. Pialat adores contrariness and spite as perhaps only a Frenchman could, but his ruefulness at his own shortcomings, personally and aesthetically, lend his films a human vitality that is one of the richest treasures of cinema.
Norman Mailer famously claimed that the one character a novelist could never successfully imagine is a writer greater than himself. Pialat isn't a Van Gogh, in either the scope of his imagination or the obscurity of his circumstances. He is wise enough to leave Van Gogh's genius out of the story, focusing instead on the quotidian aspects of his existence, and hoping to catch a glimpse of the genius in the margins. At times, he does; the extended sequence in the dance-hall/brothel is a vision of explosive joy, with undercurrents of tragedy. The borders between art and life are momentarily erased, and the ecstasy of pure, happy experience shines brightly enough to illuminate even the darkest corners of life. It's a rare enough achievement, captured by an artist of dogged skepticism and rueful self-critique, to find a way to present us with a human being who happened to be one of the greatest painters ever to pick up a brush.