December 23, 2018 – This biographical drama about the last years in the life of Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh is the latest of more than a dozen films based on the life of this fascinating, talented, tortured artist.
This time around it is Willem Dafoe (“The Florida Project”) who depicts the painter. He, like Kirk Douglas before him (“Lust for Life” 1956) looks the part, and certainly has the acting chops to pull this off. Vincent's brother, Theo, who generously supported the impoverished artist, is played by Rupert Friend (“The Death of Stalin”) and artist Paul Gauguin, a friend of Vincent, is played by Oscar Isaac (“Annihilation”).
Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme (“The Theory of Everything”) uses a lot of point-of-view shots in this film, including at least one scene when part of the picture, seen through Vincent's eyes, blurs as he cries over the fact that his friend, Paul Gauguin is leaving him.
This is a film that tries to show us the world through Vincent's eyes, the beauty of the natural world, seeing the color of autumn leaves when the light hits them just right. Vincent hikes through the countryside carrying his canvases and paints, looking for just the right spot at just the right time of day when the light is shining just right.
The film also shows us Vincent's mental problems, wearing a straight jacket, accosting a woman on the road and trying to force her into just the right pose for a sketch, being overwhelmed by swarms of people, getting confused and angry. Painting is his therapy.
We see arguments between Gauguin and Van Gogh over how to see, how to paint. Each painter has his own technique, his own approach. Their inner visions don't match, but they both produce fine art. In one scene, Vincent talks to a priest (played by Mads Mikkelsen of “Doctor Strange”) who is acting as a kind of therapist. He says that he might be an artist who is ahead of his time, whose work will not be appreciated until some future time. In another scene, he describes painting as a way to preserve his vision far into the future.
The story includes the famous incident of Vincent cutting off his own ear, and his death by gunshot. Both of these events seem to be depicted differently than they are in some historical accounts. Since no one witnessed the shooting, it seems to be open to interpretation, and this account is certainly different than most.
Willem Dafoe gives a fine performance as Vincent and he is ably supported by strong performances by Rupert Friend and Oscar Isaac. The film provides a beautiful visual feast to go along with Vincent's unique vision. This is a powerful portrait of a troubled man who doesn't fit into society, or into the styles of art of this time. He owes his very existence as an artist to the unquestioning love of his brother, Theo. In fact, the whole world owes Theo a debt of almost unlimited size. This film rates a B.
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