Anguished final years of a post-impressionist artist

Anguished final years of a post-impressionist artist Willem Dafoe stars as Vincent van Gogh.


Hollywood has never really understood artists. Kirk Douglas won an Oscar nomination for essaying the role of Vincent van Gogh in Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life  in 1956 but his performance was way over the top. Jacques Dutronc presented him in a much more nuanced manner in Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh in 1991.

Julian Schnabel, a former artist himself, here treads a middle ground between Douglas and Dutronc. His film is less biopic than psychic interrogation.

Coming just a year after the animated Loving Vincent, it has Willem Dafoe as the tortured artist who’s left Paris for the rural richness of Arles. He’s almost twice the age van Gogh was when he died but he gives a performance of such mastery that one is content to overlook this. It’s right up there with his portrayal of Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

Schnabel dwells on his craggy face as his mind unravels, evaluating him from the inside out as we witness a kind of nervous breakdown in slow motion. Dafoe’s features become the palette upon which Benoit Delhomme’s exquisite cinematography etches in his psychological disintegration.

It’s a work of great visual splendour, like a painting itself at times, though it has problems. Tatiana Lisovakaia’s piano score is too shrieking, for example. And the camera swork is often too jerky. The mixture of French and English also confuses.


Mads Mikkelsen plays a priest who expresses confusion about van Gogh’s artistry after he’s committed to an asylum. Rupert Friend is perhaps too lightweight as his brother Theo. Oscar Isaac is Paul Gauguin, the friend with whom he argues about artistic technique.

It’s a staccato film that seems much longer than its 111 minutes. But it avoids sensationalism, even when it suggests van Gogh was shot by others rather than himself.

Too many people know him only for the dramatic elements in his life – the madness, the ear-cutting, the suicide. Schnabel is more interested in how he substitutes the monochrome ‘real’ world for the multi-coloured artist’s one. And how loneliness drives him to despair.

He leaves us in little doubt that this is a doomed figure who’ll be appreciated more by posterity than his contemporaries.  “Maybe God made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet,” he laments. As the title indicates, he contemplates the hereafter as the finite mortal world becomes increasingly unbearable to him.

The film goes from depression to catharsis as van Gogh embraces the healing power of art. “Sometimes they say I’m mad,” he reflects elegiacally, “but a grain of madness is the best of art.”

Would he have been the genius he was if he didn’t suffer so much? Was he a pantheistic visionary or a holy fool?  Schnabel doesn’t attempt to answer such questions, content to tabulate the heartache of a man who loved not wisely but too well.

And who died because of the excessive passion he devoted to his craft.

Excellent *****