Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. Switzerland/United Kingdom/France/USA, 2018. Iconoclast, Riverstone Pictures, SPK Pictures. Screenplay by Jean-Claude Carrière, Louise Kugelberg, Julian Schnabel. Cinematography by Benoit Delhomme. Produced by Jon Kilik. Music by Tatiana Lisovkaia. Production Design by Stéphane Cressend. Costume Design by Cecile Vatelot. Film Editing by Louise Kugelberg, Julian Schnabel. Golden Globe Awards 2018.
It seems incredible after almost forty films have already been made about Vincent Van Gogh, the majority of them focusing on his last few years painting in Arles and Auvers-Sur-Oise, that anyone would have the nerve to make another one and think we need it. Director Julian Schnabel, whose own background in visual art has been predominant in his choice of subjects as film director, has stated that none of the previous films on the father of modern art have satisfied him, and while I don’t agree with this assessment, I can say that he has put his camera where his mouth is and come up with a pensive, intelligent and beautifully photographed film easily worthy of a place next to Vincente Minnelli’s Lust For Life, Loving Vincent and Altman’s Vincent and Theo. Willem Dafoe is superb as the master painter, whose doubts about himself, combined with his suffering from mental illness, make him both highly productive and wholly self-destructive, showing a depth of sympathy and beauty in his work while his actual social encounters with people are disastrous conflicts (here centred around an unfortunate encounter with a milkmaid on a public road, played by Lolita Chammah, daughter of Isabelle Huppert). Vincent is in and out of sanatoriums that help bring him some temporary peace but no long-term cure for what ails him, nor does he improve his reputation with the people of the village of Arles when they see what they think is a drunken, dirty madman who is a danger to them and their children (the Dutch Van Gogh’s being a foreigner isn’t so much highlighted here, and the choices between French and English dialogue are strangely inconsistent but not jarringly so). An attempt to set up an artist’s colony by inviting his emotionally noncommittal friend Paul Gaugin (played by Oscar Isaac in world-class casting) is a failure, but anyone who has seen any film about the artist already knows all these details mentioned here. What’s so beautiful about Schnabel’s delicate, poetic movie is that it mostly takes place in the moments between the biographical bullet points, featuring soul-stirring monologues by Dafoe set in dimly lit cafes, sunlit studios, hospital beds or asylum cells, all brought to life by the painterly cinematography that replicates the vivid colours of his most awe-inspiring works. For some it will move too slowly, the film doesn’t go out of its way to accomplish much in the way of narrative closure, but for those who love a film that delves deep into the soul of a troubled, creative mind, and whose exploration is combined with the silky, vibrating depths of Dafoe’s voice, this one will be a winner. Rupert Friend contributes a great deal of the film’s most touching moments as Vincent’s loving brother Theo, while Emmanuelle Seigner and almost steals the whole film with their mischievous eyes and enigmatic smile.