#905. Van Gogh (1991, Maurice Pialat)

screened Friday, January 26 on DVD in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank #615 IMDb

First I want to thank my ever resourceful gf for securing me a copy of the recent NTSC DVD issued by Sony. Though lacking in extras (the Artificial Eye Region 2 PAL disc has interviews and deleted scenes; the Sony disc only has the deleted scenes) it looks gorgeous.

Having just watched it, I'm a bit speechless. I do know that I will want to see this again, so I want to diverge from the essayistic approach I've used with other films so far and see what thoughts come forth. When I watch this again I will offer some choice clips and screen captures and related reflections.

For now:

  • - No offense to Ken Loach, but this film in its own way addressed some of the issues I had with Riff-Raff (TSPDT #552), that is the subordination of real-life indeterminacy and spontaneity to a socio-political or even a narrative sense of predetermination. The only moments that made me feel anything close to cringing were when things started to get melodramatic in the last act -- and even then Pialat's direction of something as tried and true as a family brawl was startling (check out how Vincent Van Gogh slaps his sister-in-law! Wow!).
  • - I admit it took me a while to get into this film in terms of rhythm and demeanor. It was startling to see Van Gogh so well-mannered for a good half of the film. It really wasn't until a third of the way into the film that I found its wavelength. It's not the lustier than life Kirk Douglas Van Gogh, that's for sure. It's less interested in exalting Van Gogh's misunderstood genius than in getting back to that man at that time and place, and seeing how such a genius could have been misunderstood. The sobering answer is, much easier (and forgivably so) than one might think.
  • - Like so many great films, such as those by Pialat's idol Jean Renoir (and Bresson is the other director Pialat reminds me of -- the boy in Naked Childhood [TSPDT #841] is a spiritual sibling to Bresson's Mouchette), this one hits squarely upon the impossibility of existence. It's not hard to draw a line connecting Renoir's Boudu Saved from Drowning to Van Gogh (there's even a scene where Van Gogh tries to drown himself - the emotional turning point of the film).
  • - Perhaps further to the point of life's impossibility (as well as the comparison to Bresson), there's also how this movie nails the pain of life's irrationality. No one in this film has a consistent sense of self -- you have scenes that begin with two people finishing their lovemaking all smiles and screaming vitriol at each other less than five minutes later. Those that do maintain their composure (like Van Gogh's brother Theo) look as shallow in their principled living as the others do in their inconstancy. This is not to say that Pialat condescends, sneers or even pities any of these characters. They live on screen with as much of a facutal sense of irresolution as they are resolutely dead today. Like I said, this film doesn't put Van Gogh on a pedestal -- here, he's just a guy who painted, caroused with women, acted badly and died like one of so many of God's misbegotten creatures.
  • A subset to irrationality is the film's views on value, artistic or otherwise. This film seems to treat Van Gogh's paintings with a cautious reverence, playing with their now-iconographic status. Listening to Theo Van Gogh and Van Gogh's doctor/patron discuss Vincent's art, you get a sense of the utter subjectivity of art. There's the banality of everyday life and thought, and the arbitrariness of value manifested in their conversations - just as one might find today. And there's a subsequent sense of wonder that we ever truly appreciate anything. That which is beautiful, in the end, is nothing - just as that which lets us peer into that nothing is beautiful.

Here today, van Gogh tomorrow

Some helpful writings on the film, with choice excerpts:

from Kent Jones' essay on Pialat for Film Comment:

Pialat was an irascibly private artist, charting a twisted, crook-backed path with each new movie, almost always emerging with works in which the mind-bending vitality of immediate experience trumps all belief systems, allegiances, plans. Elsa Zylberstein, who played a prostitute in Van Gogh, once told me that working with Pialat was like trying to walk a straight line in a funhouse after downing a quart of vodka. Lightning in a bottle - a motto, a working principle, an instinct, a way of life. "Stop - what you're doing now, that's exactly what I want," he would tell Elsa. "What?" she would ask. "You just lost it!" "What did I just lose?!?"

More than Cassavetes, more than Renoir, Pialat wanted every frame of celluloid bearing his name to be marked by the here and the now... The exquisite agony of the moment, which must always come to an end, the transience of experience, eternally invigorating and just as frustrating - few filmmakers have ever come as close to capturing it on film... In every conceivable way, from every possible angle, Pialat's cinema is all about the shock - startling, violent, eternally and teasingly promising - of being alive.

From Joe Armenio's DVD Verdict review:

At times when watching Van Gogh, I was reminded of the strict materialist realism of Rossellini's historical films, or Straub and Huillet's Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach. The film has the same interest in capturing the texture of everyday life, of taking the time to understand the basic material conditions under which people lived in the past. Consider, for example, the scene in which Theo Van Gogh and his wife, Johanna, discuss Vincent while going about their domestic routine. Johanna pops a pimple for Theo, then prepares for and takes a bath; Pialat seems as concerned with the bath as he does with the conversation. This attention to detail gives the characters a rare richness and depth: one senses that these are people who have lives which extend outside of the film's narrative. He presents Van Gogh's Paris debauch in a similar way, creating a fully realized, detailed environment in which the characters are capable of unguarded moments of pleasure, while at the same time never losing track of the psychological dynamic of each relationship. A more dramatic (or, more accurately, anti-dramatic) example comes at the end of the film, when the painter's death is presented as just one event among many at the inn where he has been staying: children play in the yard, the innkeeper's wife drops something on her foot and needs to be attended to.

thanks for the roll in the hay - now get outta here so I can paint my $80 million landscape!

From Darragh O'Donoughe's annotations for Senses of Cinema:

"Pialat films this narrative with a lack of emphasis complementary to Lust for Life’s vivid hysteria. The profound difference between the films can be located in their respective central performances. Kirk Douglas dominates Lust for Life, his voice and body bursting through every frame, his flame-haired face contorting in pain as if about to turn into a “dark-side” monster like Dr. Jekyll or Bruce Banner. It is a performance attuned to the public myth of Van Gogh, the events of his life, and the intensity that sears his letters, extracts from which provide much of that film’s contextual information, locking us further into his worldview.

Douglas is so immediate because Minnelli, through dialogue, scenario and mise en scène, gives privileged access to Van Gogh’s feelings and thoughts. Pialat keeps his artist at a distance, never externalising beyond what would arise “naturally” from conversation; Van Gogh is often marginal to or even absent from whole scenes, “everyday” vignettes that have nothing directly to do with him at all. Dutronc’s is one of the great performances, coiled yet passive, its sullen calm occasionally breaking into banal violence, but mostly rendered through walking, painting, listening, doubting, thinking thoughts we can only guess at (Dutronc said of Pialat himself, “Like all directors, what’s in their head is a secret”). Minnelli gives us enough reasons to make Van Gogh’s death inevitable, even understandable. Watching Pialat’s film, the suicide is as arbitrary as any of Van Gogh’s other gestures. His death is not viewed through a hagiographic, myth-making glow, but is bitter, silent, painful, spasmodic and dragged out.

This is not to dismiss Minnelli as conventional and theatrical in order to praise Pialat’s authentic realism. He may use actual locations, and privilege the routine over the dramatic, time passing over milestones reached, but Van Gogh is as artfully contrived as Lust for life. Pialat has been accused of being a “chaotic”, “inelegant” filmmaker; this may or may not be true of his other films, but is plainly not of Van Gogh, which features some of the most quietly complex and rhythmic sequences in modern cinema, most memorably the 3½ minute tracking shot that follows Van Gogh and Jo back and forth on the riverbank during the fête sequence, the lack of an edit creating tension only broken when Vincent throws himself into the river."