'Van Gogh' a fine portrait of the artist

January 06, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

That tapestry of self-loathing, bravado, cowardice, pur meanness and ecstasy known as the artistic temperament gets an almost clinical examination in Maurice Pialat's brilliant "Van Gogh," opening today at the Charles.

Of course no better example of this weird stretch of highway exists than the mind of Vincent van Gogh, the self-taught, demonically driven, Dutch-born French painter who all but reinvented the way we see the world in his 37 years, only the last decade of which was spent with a brush in hand. And Pialat's majestic film is just one among many to poke about in the territory, and the press notes helpfully point out a variety of other attempts, including the glossy "Lust for Life," with Kirk Douglas and the recent "Vincent and Theo," with Tim Roth.

But of all the movie Vincents, all the tortured and the damned young men who hack their own ears and try and fling their visions on canvas, certainly none is quieter or more powerful than Jacques Dutronc's. I am not familiar with this actor, but to encounter him is a privilege. For unlike the show-offs that came before, his Vincent is quietly furious, so self-sustained and in such utter, consuming tension that he makes you feel you are with an artist and not a movie star. He reminded of the late, great John Cassavetes, in the way his wariness seems to exude from every pore, the way he studies what goes before him and in the way he evokes inner passion without phony fireworks.

Pialat focuses on the last 67 days in Vincent's life, before the artist committed the most passive-aggressive suicide in history (he shot himself in the appendix, lingered for days, then died). The material is familiar: the solitary, embittered Vincent, 37 and looking about 90 from bouts of syphilis, alcoholism and self-hatred (the ear cutting is behind him) travels to the village of Auvers-sur-Oise and begins the most fruitful time of his career. The masterpieces just splash off his brush, and Pialat gets a great deal out of replicating the physical effort of painting.

At the same time, Vincent is taken up by a kind, art-loving doctor who, by the fires that drive him, he must betray, whose daughter he must seduce and abandon, whose household he must disrupt. That's Vincent: world-class painter, world-class jerk. Then there's his endlessly patient art-dealer brother Theo, who has supported him all these years: he must be destroyed also.

At one point Dr. Gachet marvels at van Gogh's work: "It's so hard to be simple." Yet that is exactly the credo of the picture: both Pialat and Dutronc work with a minimum of fretwork, without a spirit of melodrama being imposed on the materials. The camera set-ups are almost severe, the cutting crisp and the whole thing economic and accumulative, rather than profligate and overwhelming. A bit long at 2 1/2 hours, the movie is still wonderful.

'VAN GOGH'

Starring Jacques Dutronc

Directed by Maurice Pialat

Released by Sony Classics

Rated R

***

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