As a big Iggy Pop fan, Judge Brendan Babish was mightily disappointed when he realized, about halfway through the film, that it's actually about Vincent Van Gogh.
Paul Gauguin: All I see when I look at your paintings is just that you paint too fast.
Vincent Van Gogh: You look too fast!
From the best-selling novel by Irving Stone comes this biopic of the great impressionist painter, Vincent Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas, Spartacus).
Facts of the Case
At age 25, a young Vincent Van Gogh yearned to be a priest. Due to a lack of charisma, he was assigned to a remote parish in the Danish hinterland. Here, Van Gogh is inspired by the toil of the common man. He begins painting portraits of the coal miners he preaches to every Sunday. When the Catholic hierarchy thinks he is getting too chummy with the great unwashed, Van Gogh is relived of his post.
Thus begins the young painter's voyage throughout Denmark and France as he struggles to both perfect his revolutionary impressionist painting style and to earn enough money to eat. He spends time living with his kindly brother Theo (James Donald), then with an alcoholic prostitute (Pamela Brown), and finally his mercurial painting mentor, Paul Gauguin (Anthony Quinn, who won an Oscar for this 12-minute performance). While Van Gogh's work matures, his personal relationships all founder around him. After driving off his best friend Gauguin, Van Gogh cuts off his ear in a fit brought on by abject loneliness. Things only get worse from there.
Lust for Life tries not only to capture the ecstasy of creating art, but also the agony and loneliness of the artist. This is a daunting task for any movie, but especially for a studio film from the 1950s.
In the 50 years since its release, Lust for Life has aged quite a bit. And time has not been kind. Many filmmaking conventions that were commonplace in the 1950s are either jarring or unintentionally humorous today: the broad acting and flowery dialogue; the dissolves between scenes; the overbearing soundtrack; and the overall lack of subtlety. By far, it was the music that was most rankling. I cannot think of any film in which a string section was misused greater. I also cannot think of a soundtrack that single-handedly ruins a movie, as is the case in Lust for Life.
The soundtrack is so horrendous it is difficult to know where to start. It is loud, overbearing and constantly misplaced. It reminds me of those old silent films where there is no dialogue and the music constantly shifts to convey the emotion of the characters. The difference is that Lust for Life has dialogue, and we receive enough emotional cues from this, as well as the acting, that we don't need the music to telegraph every single change in mood for us. Even the mildest drama is punctuated with a bombastic orchestra, as if we would not be astute enough to recognize Van Gogh's exquisite pain without the aid of an overbearing tuba. It reminds me of a bad sitcom, when an overzealous technician hits the canned laughter button after every other line.
The overwrought music does no favors to Kirk Douglas' performance as Van Gogh. Douglas received an Oscar nomination for this role, and he does do the best he can with his natural ability. You can see him sweating and clenching as he struggles to convey the tortuous anxiety of a misunderstood artist. If one could will a great performance by simple brute force, then Douglas would have won that Oscar. Unfortunately, he is simply miscast in this role. Douglas has a brutish, surly acting style that is powerful, but shallow. He displays none of the depth one would expect to find in one of the greatest painters of all time.
Additionally, Douglas makes the strange decision to speak in a flat American accent while nearly every other character in the film has an English accent. Even Van Gogh's parents and siblings speak like posh, upper class Brits. It has always annoyed me that in many Hollywood films where the action takes place in non-English speaking countries, the British accent is deployed as the default "foreign" accent. Lust for Life takes place in Denmark and France, not the United Kingdom. For obvious reasons, the filmmakers could not have used the Dutch and French language in a film made primarily for American audiences. But couldn't Vincente Minelli, the director, have at least cast actors who could speak in a common dialect of the English language?
For a 50-year-old movie, Lust for Life's picture is surprisingly bright and vibrant. Warner Bros. has done a commendable job restoring this film to a condition that must be comparable to what audiences saw in 1956. The DVD comes with a commentary by film historian Dr. Drew Casper (not to be confused with Loveline's Dr. Drew Pinsky). Dr. Casper seems to be knowledge both on film history and Van Gogh's career and he gives an informative commentary, although his boundless enthusiasm for the movie is both endearing and slightly aggravating.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While Lust for Life has aged badly, it was well received upon its release in 1956. Those who saw the film during its original theatrical run, or those who have a passion for overly melodramatic films classics, will probably find much to praise about Lust for Life. However, as an introduction to films from the '50s, this is a probably a bad place to start.
A film that captures the pain, frustration and alienation of an artistic genius requires a subtlety and intensity that Lust for Life lacks. In comparison to more recent portrayals of painters, Ed Harris' Pollack and Martin Scorsese's "Life Lessons" segment of New York Stories, this movie looks almost embarrassingly tame.
Guilty of an overbearing soundtrack and excess melodrama. I recommend anyone watching Lust for Life turn the volume down and subtitles on.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Film Historian Dr. Drew Casper
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