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MAURICE PIALAT: VAN GOGH (1991) - discovering a classic

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ALEXANDRA LONDON, JACQUES DUTRONC IN VAN GOGH

A problem film, but a notable one

This long film, with Jacques Dutronc in the main role, is considered by the French to be Pialat's best. It seeks to be counter-intuitive -- and also to base its a-historical version of the artist on the conclusion that nobody who made that many paintings in the last 27 months of his life (which the film focuses on) could have been seriously impaired in function, either mental or physical; or that if he was crazy, he was high-functioning crazy. This Van Gogh has moody moments, but also laughs, drinks, has lots of sex, makes a lot of paintings, and doesn't have a cut ear. (Incidentally he also shows little sign of being Dutch; but neither did Kirk Douglas in Minelli's Lust for Life.) But this Van Gogh is also an enigma.

The best feature of Van Gogh is its eccentric, surprising period film naturalism, analogous to that of Rossellini's 1966 The Rise of Louis XIV/La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIX, or Pasolini's Neorealism-influenced period effects in The Gospel According to Matthew and his Decameron, Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights films. Probably Pialat couldn't have made this without the Nouvelle Vague and Jules et Jim behind him. Van Gogh's best moments are just throwaways that make scenes seem more "real" because they have little to do with advancing the "plot" or with "character development" -- like the choo-choo train cigarette puffing scene in Jules et Jim. Pialat's biggest influence as a filmmaker is said to be Jean Renoir. But in his Chicago Reader review Jonathan Rosenaum mentions Bresson and notes Bresson called his actors "models." Dutronc is very assured but is a non-actor, a singer primarily. As Theo the film uses the rather wooden Bernard Le Coq. In a sense they both, like the many extras who are or could be non-actors, are "models." And that, like most of the film, can be stimulating, but also frustrating, in a film about a figure people are so interested in.

The film excels at atmosphere, the way people wear their period clothes as if they were today's latest fashions, the everydayness of trains, meals, bars, and all the times Vincent refuses to eat or drink. And its key moments are its ensemble sequences, though one big one succeeds and the other fails. The highlight is a big collective picnic by the river Oise, with dancing, singing, Van Gogh doing an imitation of Lautrec and throwing himself in the river and getting fished out, and all in very long takes, with a wonderful, astonishing sense that we are right there the whole time. But the second long sequence, almost 20 minutes, is another story. It takes place in a Paris brothel with Vincent; Theo, away from Jo, his wife (Corinne Bourdon); Dr. Gachet's daughter Marguerite (a memorably vivacious Alexandra London) who's in love with Vincent and having an affair with him -- an invented plot twist; and a volatile prostitute Vincent has been involved with, Cathy (Elsa Zylberstein). This ambitious sequence meanders so much, is so unconvincing, and goes on so long, it winds up becoming merely boring and dreary and ruining the whole film at the point that should be its climax. In the end it is just confusion and debauchery, a distraction from whatever this is about; but that's where the film is best, otherwise. This is reminiscent of the long dance in Philippe Garrel's Regular Lovers/Les amants r├ęguliers: but that becomes a magic moment, and is more germane because it's a film about a lost generation, not the end of a great artist. But if Pialat's Van Gogh is a failure it is a great failure.

Van Gogh's death is disconcertingly real, without poetry or drama, merely flat and grim. And then it's over, with a couple of hints in posthumous scenes of how famous Van Gogh will be. But there have been enough living and thought-provoking moments to make this a distinctive film and maybe one that says something about its ostensible subjects. Such a failure is, though frustrating, better than many people's successes.

Van Gogh (incidentally the French pronounce it "Van Gog," to rhyme with "jog"), 158 mins., opened theatrically in France 30 Oct. 1991, in the USA the same day in 1992. Vincent Canby wrote an understanding and clear review for the NY Times. Watched on a disk from Netflix 6 Dec. 2015, which has the option of no subtitles, English subtitles, or French ones, an unusual feature on US DVD's and a handy one for lifelong French learners like me. The film was shown in New York in late October at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of a Maurice Pialat retrospective.

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