Masters Of Cinema #67 - Van Gogh - Blu-ray Review

A biography of the last few months of a great artist's life, it is little surprise to find that Maurice Pialat's Van Gogh has a painterly eye, vividly brought to life by its new Masters Of Cinema release, which has an outstanding picture, even by their standards.

Time and again, as we watch Van Gogh (Jacques Dutronc) return to the high living he has arrived in Auvers-sur-Oise to get away from, Pialat frames scenes with the delicate composition of a pastel-master. Often, Van Gogh himself appears framed in a window or doorway, the subject of a new artist's impression, almost magnified by his on-screen placement. Pialat doesn't negate background or landscape either. Watch for the peacock subtly wandering around behind a bush in one garden scene: surely no accident. Whilst walking by a beautiful river scene, complete with gallant boats and floating dresses, Van Gogh declares he will 'never paint water'. He doesn't need to. Pialat has done it for him. Later a shot of Marguerite (Alexandra London) walking down a road, framed either side by two cornfields, is almost too perfect.

But those looking solely for canvas-beauty in Pialat's palette and Van Gogh's sunflower-addled life should be warned: the Dutchman produced works of intense darkness as well and that is here too in drabs. It could of course be coincidence but it doesn't feel like it, it feels like Pialat has judged his film's appearance perfectly.

The plotting to all of his impressive camera work falters on a couple of key areas. Van Gogh, slowly revealing himself to us as a past abuser of substances ('absinthe', whispers someone in Auvers), is kept almost entirely passive by Dutronc. Even in later scenes, throwing pots of rabbit around in brother Theo's (Bernard Le Coq) house, he feels strangely like an empty tempestuous teenager. There's never much depth of character offered to the reasons behind his addictions and occasional depravity.

That point slightly undermines Pialat's attempts to have something to say on the merger between art, substances, inspiration and ruin. Clearly all of those topics are here to discuss but Van Gogh's descent from an initial statement to the train station master that he 'doesn't drink' only ever feels tentatively related to his artistic production, or lifestyle of limited means. There's plenty around the fact that Theo essentially supports him, but the film never comes down on Van Gogh's side (that Theo might be short-changing his art progression) or Theo's (that Van Gogh is reckless). Because of this, the one-hundred and fifty eight minute running time can feel ponderous, beating about the bush too often.

More often than not though, the sophisticated darkness works for Pialat, in a film never less than intriguing. At a drunken lunch with Doctor Gachet (Gérard Séty), Pialat cuts to two new characters in frame every time, never returning us to two we have seen together before. It's a restrained way of depicting drunkenness, keeping us unfamiliar and on edge; giddy not via constant movement but by constant unfamiliarity.

Perhaps that was what Van Gogh felt like, removed from Paris to country ideals and a slower pace, though his return to past delights is inevitable, Marguerite dragged along for the ride.

Founded in 2004, The Masters of Cinema Series is an independent, carefully curated, UK-based Blu-ray and DVD label, now consisting of over 150 films. Films are presented in their original aspect ratio (OAR), in meticulous transfers created from recent restorations and / or the most pristine film elements available.

Van Gogh is released in the UK on Monday 23rd September 2013

By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

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