Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh, which along with Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch, Paul Leduc’s Frida: Naturaleza Viva, and Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev make up the best quartet of artist biopics, comes out today on DVD. Pialat’s best known work in the US is his Depardieu-Huppert vehicle Loulou, a favorite of mine which takes the romantic genre to its full extension by depicting a couple that has absolutely nothing in common other than sex, and unflinchingly and comedically looking at the class dimensions of this relationship.
While Watkins’ masterpiece is a revering epic that wallows in the historical dimensions and personal anguish in Munch’s work, Pialat’s is historically irreverent enough to, for instance, imagine a fling between Van Gogh (Jacques Dutronc) and Dr. Gachet’s daughter (Alexandra London), who uses the situation to rebel against her only surviving parent and becomes a devoted champion of his art. There is none of the Lust for Life/ Vincent and Theo sensationalism and moralizing here: Van Gogh gets to be an ordinary person, socially functional and humorous, with depression and bitterness below the surface. He talks about art as little as possible, a trait perhaps useful for the tone of the film depicted as a result of years of contempt for his contemporaries’s viewpoints, as when he is criticized by a peer and when Gachet tries to talk shop with him, he reacts only with pained facial expressions.
A brilliant scene for the ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ / 'Musee des Beaux Arts' department is when right after Van Gogh dies and Theo and Gachet (Bernard Le Coq and Gérard Séty, who turn in the best of many convincing performances) solemnly settle his estate of paintings in the tavern of his low-rent inn, a storage chest closes on the foot of the innkeepers’ wife, causing the drama to move on immediately from the death of the then-unimportant Vincent. The film covers the period from his arrival in Auvers-sur-Oise to just after his death.
Le Coq’s Theo is an imperfect but magnanimous and self-effacing dealer whose loyalty to Vincent is portrayed as a byproduct of his passion for paintings, friendship depicted through bonding scenes in Paris bordellos, and bourgeois family pride. A revealing scene of Pialat’s imagining of Theo comes from this private conversation with his wife:
Theo: He could have been one of the great painters of his time. But he started late and rushed things. He always does. Like when he wanted to be a priest. He never learned. I don’t understand him. The truth is, deep down I don’t like his painting. I wish he painted like Renoir. I’d love that. No, I don’t want him to paint like Renoir. Not that either. But if Renoir painted like Vincent... I’d like it because my brother hadn’t done it. See?
Jo: What nonsense. You complicate everything. Life just happens, that’s all.
For people who want to hear more from Van Gogh’s mouth, Paul Cox’s ‘87 Van Gogh, which involves John Hurt reading from the diaries for almost the whole film, is recommended for those who may find the diaries full of pages of minutia and want striking images to go with the words. Watkins’ Munch has also been released on DVD within the past year, and another recently released artbiopic that uses a similar approach to Cox’s, about Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, is recommended. Also my summer pick, La Moustache, comes out next Tuesday.
A quote from Van Gogh's diaries (September 1889) that relates to the 'fear of faith' I have attributed to Robbe-Grillet: "I am astonished that with the modern ideas that I have, and being so ardent an admirer of Zola and de Goncourt and caring for things of art as I do, that I have attacks such as a superstitious man might have and that I get perverted and frightful ideas about religion such as never came into my head in the North."