I have long held an admiration for Vincent Van Gogh. I am not much of an art lover, but I find his work indescribably beautiful, I also find his deeply troubled life intriguing and moving. For a man so troubled he left behind a vast legacy in such a short life, and his life has been documented many time by film and television, and this is the latest adaptation, of Vincent’s later years.
In recent times, there have been a few stand-out works based on the life of the great artist; Loving Vincent from a few years ago was a staggering animation, painstakingly rendered in the style of his paintings, and my admiration for the Vincent and the Doctor episode of Doctor Who has been well-documented.
The first I heard of this film, it was when this years Oscar animations were announced, and Willem Dafoe had received a nomination for playing Vincent Van Gogh. At the time, I’d never heard of this film, much less a release date, upon further research, it transpired it was because it had yet to be released here in the UK, a fate that befalls many an interesting under-the-radar indy film over here.
So with my interest piqued and anticipating learning more about a much-revered historical figure, I found a screening, let’s find out if the film lives up to Vincent’s reputation.
During the last few weeks and months of his life, Vincent Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) is troubled by repeated mental health issues, while he continues to be prolific, people struggle to see the merit in his work, as he toils away, poor and alone in provincial France.
There was little to no information readily available about this film before I went to see it, and in hindsight, that is for the best. As on paper, this film can seem like an exercise in pretentiousness, ticking every box in the hipster indy film checklist, but where it deviates from this trap is in its stunning main performance and excellent camera work.
As I stated earlier, Vincent’s story is one that has been well-told. The perennial ‘troubled artist’ he blazed a trail that many artists struggle to catch up to even now, he was a genius ahead of his time, and the fact that he never got to see any of the recognition he received is utterly heart-breaking.
What’s more heart-breaking however, is his mental state while he was alive, while fuelled by his work as an artist, he was a deeply troubled man, in a time where such things bought you no sympathy (some would argue that is still indeed the case) he was shipped from asylum to asylum, his view of the world dimmed by his own troubled mind.
Where the film captures this best is in its camera work, a lot of it focuses on extreme close-ups, to an almost claustrophobic degree, it gets us as close to Vincent’s head-space as we can without physically being inside his head. The use of colour and sound to represent his viewpoint is also very well done, there are segments where we see the world from his view and these shots are sepia-tinged and sometimes colourless, perhaps as a reflection of his own diminishing mental state. The camera follows Vincent as closely as possible during his most emotional moments, so we see every line of anguish upon his face.
Delivering that anguish, in a harrowing, almost traumatic, performance, is Willem Dafoe, who is on top form here, this is not the Willem Dafoe we have seen immortalised as an internet meme, this is Willem Dafoe as a world-class emotional powerhouse, who takes us through Vincent’s mental and artistic journey with wonderful gusto, a truly sublime masterclass in acting for film.
The film does not completely escape a pretentious art-house feel however, at times it does lean on very little story development, in favour of artistic looking visuals and sound editing, this does not detract from all of its positives, but I do feel it could turn some people off the journey that lies within its core. Vincent’s mind is the most interesting thing in whatever it features in, and an artistic vision and flair for the obtuse does not hamper this.
In conclusion, while not an experience that might be enjoyed by a casual cinema-going audience, for those going i wanting something a bit deeper, they will find a deeply personal film, anchored by a wonderful lead performance, and supported by refreshing camera work. It delivers the tragic story of Vincent with an artistic and refreshing twist.