Subjects And Objects;
Lush, Vivid and Distorted;
If the true nature of an artist is one of suffering, then Vincent Van Gogh was a pure example of the tortured soul. While there have certainly been other films about him (even recently), this one chooses to focus on his final, especially troubled years to really drive that home. It doesn’t come across entirely melancholic, as co-writer and director Julian Schnabel is able to capture the beauty of nature not only as it appears to the normal mind, but also as it appeared to Van Gogh’s distinctly unique perspective.
The film, like Van Gogh’s work, drips with its own visual style, though it occasionally works against itself. We often see things through Vincent’s eyes, with sudden shifts in the color palette, sudden blasts of blinding sunlight, drastic changes in focus (often appearing as the bottom half of the screen being entirely out of focus in a straight line) and other such tricks that, like some of his paintings, give off the effect of motion even while standing still. The handheld camerawork can often feel as shaky as a modern action movie, even while two characters are simply walking and talking. The desired effect of all of this is to attempt to put you in Van Gogh’s headspace and perhaps help you realize why his art came out looking the way it did. And while Schnabel achieves this without a doubt, it can come across off-putting. I imagine that is entirely the point, but sometimes the camera was shaking so hard it took me out of the moment. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the saying goes, and Schnabel takes great care to show us that beauty through Vincent’s eyes, and the visual style of the film goes a long way toward expressing how difficult it was for the painter to live with and capture that beauty.
Willem Dafoe is fantastic in the title role, bringing the role a gentle charm that seems constantly threatened by a darker nature lurking in the shadows. He is great at pulling off that tightrope act, seeming to always teeter on the brink of insanity by using every expression at his disposal. His performance is as beautiful, fleeting and fragile as the man’s paintings were, and watching him emulate the speed and precision of Van Gogh at work is a marvel to see. Oscar Isaac, as Van Gogh’s friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin, gives a thoughtful turn to a role that sees him seemingly as interested in taking thoughtful drags from his pipe as he is keeping Vincent on course and changing the way painters see the world and present it to others. Mads Mikkelsen makes the most of his limited role as the Priest with the power to decide if Van Gogh is sane enough to be released, and the scene where the two converse over religion, mental health and more is transfixing to watch.
One of my favorite aspects of the film was Tatiana Lisovskaya’s awe-inspiring score. Very heavy pianos alternate from quiet accompaniment to abrasively loud, dominant soundscapes that further illustrate the kind of noise Van Gogh had to wade through for his art on not only a daily, but even minute-by-minute basis. Like the visuals, it can become suddenly overwhelming, but the dynamic between beauty and aural assault is great and, for me, enhanced the experience all around.
While slightly slow, wordy and very dialogue-heavy, this isn’t the kind of film for everyone, but I also don’t think you need to be an art snob to appreciate it either. I am by no means an expert on painters, but I found it to be engaging and rewarding with a dominant, possibly Oscar-contending performance at its core. It covers an alternate account of his death, and Schnabel is clear to point out that this is his version of Van Gogh’s final days, not to be taken as the final, true account. Like all works of art, perception is the key and interpretation likely to change depending on the person, the lighting, the viewing angle and anything else that may form our perceptions.