Director Maurice Pialat looks beyond the tip of the psychological iceberg in this movie about Van Gogh, Judge Joe Armenio says, but doesn't find any penguins. Not even psychological ones.
"You put it all into your work, and left nothing for the rest. The rest counts most."
French director Maurice Pialat (1925-2003) remains something of an unknown quantity in the English-speaking world, although Criterion began to remedy that in the summer of 2006 with its release of his 1983 film A Nos Amours. Some knowledge of Pialat's rather fierce and uncompromising vision is necessary when approaching Van Gogh. Viewers who come to the film unaware, expecting a straightforward biopic, will be stunned by the director's speculations and deviation from the known facts of the painter's life. Pialat's films are devoted to stripping away the illusions of psychological realism as usually practiced in movies; relationships are messy, fraught, and contradictory, people behave in unexpected ways, and the films are full of jarring shifts in tone. They combine a psychological richness rare in cinema with a sense that their characters are never fully knowable. It makes perfect sense that Pialat, then, would deviate from the simplistic methods of the standard biopic, suggesting that the historical record is just the tip of the psychological iceberg. Pialat invents and speculates about Van Gogh's life in search of a deeper truth not accessible to an "objective" account.
Facts of the Case
Van Gogh (1991), Pialat's penultimate film, dramatizes the last 67 days of the painter's life, from May to June 1890, which he spent in Auvers-sur-Oise, in the country outside Paris. Van Gogh (Jacques Dutronc) went to Auvers to be closer to his brother, art dealer Theo Van Gogh (Bernard Le Coq, Cache), and to receive care from Dr. Paul Gachet (Gerard Sety), who was himself an amateur artist and art enthusiast. Much of the film takes place at Gachet's bucolic riverside home, in the spartan inn where Van Gogh stayed, and at Theo's home in Paris. In Pialat's account, Van Gogh spends his time brooding over his failure to make a living as an artist, blaming Theo for "smothering" him and refusing to publicize his work. He pursues his alternately tender and tormented relationship with prostitute Cathy (Elsa Zylberstein, That Day) and has an affair with Gachet's daughter Marguerite (Alexandra London).
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.
Of course, Rossellini and Straub and Huillet stuck closely to the historical record, while Pialat invents and elaborates. Dutronc's Van Gogh is far from the tormented mad genius of legend; he's entirely lucid, admitting that he faked the fits which landed him in the mental hospital. He is often brusque, distracted, melancholy, and weary beyond his years (Dutronc was in his late forties when he played the 37-year-old painter), but also possesses a charming dry wit and has a healthy appetite for sensual pleasure. His unhappiness comes not from unhappy love affairs or madness but from a deep alienation from both his culture and the people closest to him. While most historians emphasize the closeness of the relationship between Vincent and Theo, Pialat turns it into a conflicted bond in which dependence, tenderness, and hostility are inseparable (see also the relationship between Sandrine Bonnaire's character and her father, played by Pialat himself, in A Nos Amours). Both Theo and Dr. Gachet, usually portrayed as an ally of Vincent's, are presented as timid bourgeois liberals with conventional taste and little idea what to make of Van Gogh's work. At one point Theo admits that he doesn't like his brother's paintings, and Vincent seethes noticeably when forced to listen to the doctor's windy pronouncements on Art.
Pialat invents a love affair between Van Gogh and Gachet's daughter, Marguerite; the artist also carries on his affair with a Parisian prostitute named Cathy (in one memorable set piece, a group of prostitutes travels out to Auvers for a bucolic interlude). The emotions involved are complicated. Van Gogh is capable of openness and tenderness with these women, but he can also be rude and distant, sometimes in the course of a single conversation. Pialat gives no indication that these affairs are either redemptive or a source of great sorrow to Van Gogh: they're simply the flawed attempts of frustrated human beings to achieve intimacy. As for Van Gogh's work, we learn relatively little about it. This is not a movie about the artistic process. When we see him working, it is usually in quiet moments, when he produces art as a consolation: making a portrait for the "village idiot" or scrawling a chalk drawing to soothe a crying child. While Gachet and Theo, the arbiters of taste, pretend to like Vincent's paintings, these marginal people are the ones who truly take comfort from his work. Marguerite is given the last words, "he was my friend," and the line ends the film on a note of muted triumph. Despite his many frustrations and failures, Van Gogh was able to make friends not only with Marguerite but with the generations of art lovers who have come to know and appreciate his work.
Sony's anamorphic transfer is excellent. Optional English and French subtitles are provided (they are yellow, which I know troubles some people; I didn't find it distracting). The only extras are the film's trailer and 32 minutes of deleted scenes. Some of these are longer than others, and some are of considerable interest, such as the several scenes in which Van Gogh grows unusually expansive in discussing art and life with Marguerite and his fellow painters. The fact that these scenes were not used in the final film suggests that Pialat made a conscious decision to limit the amount of time that Van Gogh spends actually discussing his work. There's also an intriguing alternate take of Vincent's death, in which a hand-held camera moves in for a dramatic close-up. It provides quite a contrast to the chillier master shot used in the final film.
Pialat's film is bound to annoy Van Gogh purists, but there are plenty of biographies and documentaries available if one wants an "objective" account. This is, rather, an encounter with a major filmmaker, one who uses Van Gogh's story to explore his own ideas about art and human relationships. It might be a good idea to watch Criterion's A Nos Amours first, with its intelligent supplements, to get a feel for Pialat's methods and preoccupations.
I hope there's a Pialat renaissance right around the corner.
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