Being associated with hard-hitting and confrontational modern-day relationship dramas during the 1970s and 1980s, a period biopic of the artist Vincent Van Gogh might seem an unlikely subject for Maurice Pialat, but the troubled nature of the artist’s relationships with his family and with the women in his life actually fits in perfectly with the director’s typical subject matter. When combined with Pialat’s extremely physical, naturalistic and improvisational style, Van Gogh turns out be a period drama like no other.
Pialat was also trained as an artist and had long been fascinated by Van Gogh having already made a documentary about the painter in 1965. Like that documentary, his 1991 film covers the final 69 days of the artist’s life at Auvers-sur-Oise, a town a short distance from Paris, where Vincent went to recuperate after incidents that had seen him cut off his ear following an argument with Gaugin at the Yellow House in Arles and a subsequent year-long stay at the asylum in St-Rémy. The film begins with his Vincent (Jacques Dutronc) arriving in Auvers-sur-Oise, having been sent there by his brother Théo (Bernard Le Coq) to be attended to by his friend, Doctor Gachet (Gérard Séty). Vincent soon becomes friendly with the family, painting portraits and landscapes for the art-loving doctor and his family, and getting romantically involved with the young daughter, Marguerite (Alexandra London). However while at Auvers-sur-Oise, Vincent is not quite far enough away from the temptations of Paris that have helped fuel his serious mental problems. A short trip on the train brings him back to the bars and brothels of Montmartre where he takes up again with a prostitute of his acquaintance, Cathy (Elsa Zylberstein), drinking and carousing with Henri Toulouse Lautrec. Dependent on his brother Théo, but at the same time frustrated by his failure to get people interested in buying his paintings and becoming increasingly mentally unstable, Vincent shoots himself in the stomach and dies a day later at the age of 39.
Pialat’s film avoids the usual trappings of the traditional biopic that attempts to summarise significant events and characteristics of a person’s life, moulding and dramatising them to conform to a cinematic plot of cause and effect. Such a filmmaking approach would be completely out of character for the naturalistic and improvisational techniques employed by Maurice Pialat. Instead, the director depicts events with straightforward directness and simplicity and little in the way of back story. Van Gogh is shown as a sick and tormented man, but not in the typical way that his madness is often depicted. Instead we see the typical characteristics of a manic depressive – an inability to conduct his own affairs, drinking heavily, throwing himself furiously into his work (Van Gogh prolifically painted 80 canvasses in his 69 days in Auvers-sur-Oise), and morbidly obsessed by the women in his life. The French singer and actor Jacques Dutronc is magnificent as Vincent. Looking extremely drawn and thin (and apparently ill himself during the making of the film), he sways between listlessness and manic activity, prone to fits of anger, jealousy and self-hatred, always maintaining a remarkable intensity.
What this achieves is making Vincent Van Gogh not a figure of academic curiosity, but entirely human, placing him and the creation of his paintings in the context of his relationships with people and those relationships within the social conditions of the period. Vincent’s attitude towards women is therefore taken in the context of social attitudes towards women of the time, who are either maids, prostitutes, or young women whose only social requirements are to be able to play piano, do embroidery and be fitting material for a husband. Even characters like Dr. Gachet, so often maligned and misunderstood as a quack dealing in homeopathic remedies, when seen in a realistic context, comes across as genuinely sympathetic and understanding of Van Gogh’s condition and appreciative of his art, but unable to assist a man not suffering from any illness curable by conventional medicines.
Yet Van Gogh has the same flaws (or if not flaws, at least issues) that make Pialat’s films often difficult to watch – the lack of traditional narrative structure or plot and the fact that the films are made up of extremely dislikeable characters inflicting brutality upon each other. At the same time, this is also the virtue of Pialat’s work and the strength of this approach is that it lends Van Gogh an incredible authenticity and naturalism that you will not find in any comparable biography or documentary of the artist, taking us closer to the real man – not letting us observe him from a distance, but actually being witness to the man’s serious personal problems and to the brilliance of his artistic talent. On this last point, I’m not convinced that the director is successful at showing the man as an artist and quite how the demons that drove him led to the creation of great art, but then that is perhaps a tall order. Despite its difficulties however, this is just as compelling a film as any of Pialat’s work, and probably one of his best.
Van Gogh is released in the UK by Artificial Eye as a special 2-disc set. The DVD is Region 2 encoded in PAL format.
The film is presented anamorphically in its original 1.66:1 ratio. The image is clear and free from any marks or damage, although sharpness is a little on the soft side. It is warmly and naturalistically coloured, capturing the tones of the countryside well, from the golden glows of the cornfields to the dull brown tones of the interiors – although interiors can sometimes look a little oversaturated, flattening out blacks. There is a fair amount of macro-blocking artefacts, visible mainly in the slight flickering of backgrounds. The image nevertheless remains stable on the whole.
The original soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. It’s strong, clear and detailed, with no issues of background noise.
English subtitles are in white font and are removable.
The film’s editor, Yann Dedet talks about the approach to editing the film with the director and the reasons why scenes were cut or not used in an Introduction to the Deleted Scenes (15:22). Twenty of the Deleted Scenes (32:12) are included, none of which contribute to the development of the film, but are more incidental touches and details which add to the whole feel of the period and the characters, particularly the final extended Lunch at Gachet’s scene. A recent Interview with Jacques Dutronc (20:35) gives a very good indication of the difficult and violent working relationship actors had with Pialat (“He hated me”), but how it was an incredible acting experience. A Gallery of Maurice Pialat Paintings presents 30 oils and sketches Pialat made between 1942 and 1947, long before he became a film director. Short Biographes and Filmographies are included for Pialat and Dutronc.
Comparison with French Gaumont edition
The French edition of Van Gogh is also a 2-disc special edition, available separately or as part of the first of two Pialat boxsets, which contain the late director’s complete works (Pialat died in 2003). With only the addition of English subtitles not available on the French release, the Artificial Eye edition is a direct port of this Gaumont edition, the image and sound quality being identical (see screenshots below, Artificial Eye left, Gaumont right). Artificial Eye however have not brought across the full contents of the second disc of extra features, which support further the high regard with which the director is held in France. In addition to the features mentioned above, the French edition also includes a revealing 1992 Interview with Maurice Pialat (Mon Zénith à Moi) (49:02), where the director is typically very harsh and self-critical about Van Gogh, talks about his public persona and reputation, critics and his turbulent relationship with his actors and with great bitterness about his parents. He concludes that he would have been happier to be a mediocre painter than a great filmmaker. In a shorter 1992 Interview with Maurice Pialat (Spécial Cinéma) (9:46), Pialat is also harsh about Van Gogh and about Dutronc’s performance. Pialat’s short 1965 black and white documentary film Van Gogh (6:18) dealing with the same period of the painter’s life as his 1991 feature is also included, showing scenes of Auvers-sur-Oise and Van Gogh’s paintings from this period, with a narration describing his final days there. Trailers are included for all Pialat’s films. Like the feature, none of the extras on the French edition contain English subtitles.
Depicted entirely naturalistically, Van Gogh is simultaneously compelling and difficult viewing, showing a clinically depressed man on a quick road to self-destruction, incapable of maintaining a relationship with anyone but prostitutes. Pialat however brings the brilliance of his technique to bear on the material and presents Vincent Van Gogh as an entirely human being, not just as some academic conglomeration or aggregation of characteristics gleaned from books, letters and documentaries. If it doesn't quite capture the essence of what made Van Gogh a great artist, Pialat’s