‘Lust for Life’ reduces Van Gogh to a stock biopic figure
In anticipation of "Loving Vincent," Daily Film writers revisited past cinematic depictions of the artist's life. You can read the other piece in the series here and the review of "Loving Vincent" here.
How many times have you heard that when Vincent Van Gogh died, no one knew who he was? That when the artist behind “Starry Night” met his own self-inflicted demise, the world-famous painting may as well have been in a dumpster? “Lust for Life,” the 1956 MGM nigh-melodrama about Van Gogh, starring Kirk Douglas (“Paths of Glory”), makes it clear that the artist was doomed for an anonymous death. He’s rude, unskilled (save for art), a disappointment, socially maladroit. He’s viewed with contempt by just about everyone, including his own family, and his one-time friend Paul Gauguin (an Oscar-winning Anthony Quinn, “Lion of the Desert”) decides to split when he becomes disturbed by Van Gogh’s obsession to art.
“Lust for Life” isn’t exactly a cradle-to-grave biopic, but it’s something of a prototype for the genre. Van Gogh begins humbly, with his rejection from clergy elders. He takes to a small town, begins to observe the impoverished and starts to paint. Meanwhile, his brother, Theo (James Donald, “Cast a Giant Shadow”), finds himself at the epicenter of a major schism in the art world as elitist Europeans look askance at impressionist painters. When Van Gogh discovers the movement, he takes to it quickly, devoting his time to his work. At the film’s conclusion, he has cut off his ear, removed himself to a psychological institution and shot himself as he painted fields and crows. Kirk Douglas does what he can, but it’s nothing extraordinary considering the work he put out for the rest of the decade.
That’s why “Lust for Life” is so disappointing. Because while its subject is so fascinating, all the film can do is translate Van Gogh’s vibrancy — both on his canvases and in his personal life — not to a compelling and impressionist-like narrative, but just to a visual splendor. Except not quite. The film’s colors are sublimely vivid, with every hue, from green to orange to red to blue, popping off the screen — that’s to be expected of director Vincente Minnelli, whose mastery of color can be witnessed in the ballet finale of “An American in Paris” — but the camera remains stationary, limited both by technology and studio risk aversion. What a shame: A visionary artist’s life to be captured by such conventional means.