'Life isn't so bad. There's even room for the village idiot.'

Of the films for the TSPDT project that I've seen this month, Maurice Pialat's Van Gogh is the one that has inspired me to take a closer look. I reviewed the first third of this 159 minute film and found much to take note of, many stills to capture... but I don't want to go overboard with musings and observations. I've decided to focus on one sequence in depth as a way of making specific remarks that hopefully open into wider observations. I've chosen the sequence embedded below. In some ways it's atypical of Pialat's style because he tends to employ long single take scenes and arrange his mise-en-scene within a mostly stationary camera -- and he is very good at this. This sequence I've chosen uses quite a different technique: several shots that skip along through space and time. What's fascinating to me is how Pialat is able to keep a consistent feeling through his film despite these seemingly incongruous techniques. I think it's he establishes a similar syncopated rhythm in both his long-take dialogue scenes with their punchy dialogue and with the more montage-driven sequences like the one I've linked below:


I'm not sure what the first scene is doing (I don't think we ever find out what that whistle is for) but it just feels right. For one thing it gives intriguing incidental info on life at the inn where Van Gogh is staying -- second it sets up this theme of Van Gogh being interrupted or intruded upon, one that runs well beyond this embedded sequence.

The next scene is fast, clean, incidentally expository and fun. The way this young actress moves through the scene is great: she has a peasant's bossiness and contentiousness with the guest in her house, only to have a smile betray her flirtatious attraction to him. The little chuckle that barely escapes from her throat at the end is priceless, and the typical kind of throwaway gesture Pialat loves to capture like a butterfly, only to release it in an instant with a cut to the next scene. You have to be on your A game to be this light on your feet. Next shot is the kind that would make Manny Farber's heart sing - a modest little workaday moment that suggests plenty about rituals, both the inn's and Van Gogh's. Cut to just enough sleepy country roadside to suggest Van Gogh getting into his groove before Pialat changes it up with an unexpected (well not totally unexpected) request. Cut to one of these observational medium shots Pialat is so good at, and then we see what Vincent's done with his morning. The workers get up from lunch break as Vincent's smoking his pipe -- time to get working. Finally, some brush strokes.

What's remarkable about this sequence so far is that despite the frequent disruptions to Van Gogh's life and the fragments of narrative pieced together, it still flows smoothly -- does this suggest someting of Van Gogh's internal rhythm, turbulent yet cohesive? Is that what's in those gobs of blue paint slathered and streaked across that canvas?

There's much mystery in the transaction between Vincent and the 'village idiot.' Who knows why he agrees to paint him, why he decides to pull his hair up and put the ridiculous flower in his mouth, and why he lets him have the painting. Same I suppose as why he agreed to get soused with strangers all morning before an honest half-day's work finishing two paintings. What I do know is that the idiot's gaze into the version of himself as he staggers away is beautiful.

Cut to Van Gogh's next subject -- looking pregnant with anticipation -- and Van Gogh and his doctor upstairs discussing art. I wish I'd let the conversation at the end of this clip continue to give more of a feeling of how the same punchy rhythm carries through in long take dialogues. I kept watching for another five minutes before I realized I didn't have a real cut-off. This whole movie feels cut like a conversation - a contentious conversation with excited lilts, sullen pauses and unexpected mood shifts. Cinema as conversation as music, and it just keeps going.