Directed by Maurice Pialat. 1991.

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This is an intelligent and carefully crafted film. The cinematography is excellent, and the performances consistently suit the style of the film. 

Although it has received considerable critical acclaim, it does have several faults. Like the opening shots of the blue paint being applied to canvas the film itself reflects this cold-blooded colour. As the camera fixes on the canvas a trickle slowly descends from the drying paint. The following film is like a series of carefully framed paintings that have been brought to life, much like that trickle of paint. This is particularly obvious in the scene where Van Gogh is shown painting Dr Gachet's daughter - he stands outside the house, the camera stays indoors and the open window becomes a natural frame. 

There are wonderful set pieces and the historical detail is not as fussy as most costume dramas of this type (though the settings, props and costumes still don't represent the untidiness and crudeness of ‘reality‘) . 

Like this characterisation of Van Gogh you feel distanced and dissatisfied with what is happening. Rather than being over-sensitive and struck by the sheer power and energy of life and nature, Van Gogh seems more like a robot who cannot feel anything. This is reminiscent of Marcel's disappointment with adulthood: 

Whether it is because the faith that creates has ceased to exist in me, or because reality takes shape in the memory alone, the flowers that people show me nowadays for the first time never seem to me to be true flowers. 
(Proust, Marcel, Swann's Way, Penguin, 1985, p.201.) 

The only way Van Gogh is able to feel anything is to mutilate himself physically or psychologically. He is a sick dispossessed person who is obsessed with painting. This obsession, which might help alleviate and express his inner most concerns also creates a barrier between himself and his brother. Theo is the one who subsidises Vincent's ‘career’ but doesn't believe in him as an artist. Vincent sees himself as a burden to family and friends, but at the same time he cannot help being a troublesome burden (he picks fights in Paris, and allows himself to be seduced by Dr Gachet's young daughter in the countryside). 

The camera remains a distanced observer and we never experience any feelings, even the death of Vincent doesn't seem that important. Having survived more than two hours of this dissection of the death of an artist you wonder why we should bother. Certainly too many films (particularly Hollywood productions) seek inflated emotional reactions at every opportunity for no particular purpose, yet here the director is frightened of any type of emotional reaction (except one of cold detachment). 

The film is not meant to be an exploration or portrayal of the historical ‘facts’ since the director admits the affair between Vincent and Dr Gachet's daughter was invented for the sake of the story. Yet, the myth of the detached observer and that we are watching a kind of real-life is still maintained. This seems far more bourgeois and intellectually effete than the extravagances of Hollywood. 

Nigel Watson
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