Van Gogh (1991)

15 10 2008

No question, this is Maurice Pialat’s most ambitious film: a two and a half-hour account of Vincent Van Gogh’s last days alive. It doesn’t even sound like the most “Pialat-ian” of set-ups, but somehow, it comes out being a film that cannot be mistaken for someone else’s work. There’s the father-daughter complex, the abrupt emotional meltdowns, and that all too important sense of intimacy that only Pialat can create. If there’s anything specifically wrong about this film, it’s that it does go on a bit too long. The epic scope itself is admirable, but there’s a bit too much stereotypical French cinema small-talk which could have clearly been cut out completely.

The first hour is definitely the most gentle and reserved half of the film. There’s seemingly a lot less dialogue as well, which certainly bodes well for Pialat’s type of cinema. More or less, he seems to be going through some of the Bressonian motions that he used so well in L’Enfance Nue. I guess it is predictable then, that by the film’s halfway point it begins to “pick things up.” The transition itself is a bit jarring as the initial laid back, almost Rivette-esque tone clashes a bit awkwardly with Pialat’s perchance for violent outburst, which kind of lapse into self-parody here.

There are some positives to this, though, as Pialat indulges in some completely amazing moments of kinetic spontaneity towards the very end. The most obvious example being the party in the whorehouse where almost all of the film’s best moments are contained within. Pretty much anything that follows this section is a bit of a disappointment. Sure, it does have every right to be melancholy since it is building up to the death of the main character, but technically, Pialat also tones things down. At the same time, he seems to be trying to make up for lost time, which is quite odd since the film is 150-some minutes long. In the last twenty minutes or so, the film is elliptically fragmented. Some scenes go on for 15 seconds before Pialat jumps to something entirely different. I’ve always admired Pialat’s editing style, but it doesn’t really go well with the very straight-forward pacing present in the rest of the film.

I should take a step back and say that this truly is a wonderful film. Most of my compliants come from expecting only the very best from Pialat. This would unquestionably be the defining piece in the career of almost any other director, but for Pialat, it’s just an odd (but of course, well made) venture into the world of period pieces. It seems that Pialat’s interest was not so much in Vincent van Gogh’s life as it was in the visual potential of impressonistic landscapes. That’s perfectly fine, as the film is clearly beautiful to look out, but in terms of “depth” and whatnot, it falls a bit short of Pialat’s best work.