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Maladies and Missed Connections in Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh

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“Old fellow, having thought it over I do not say that my work is good, but the thing is that I can do less bad stuff. And still, still some canvases will one day find purchasers. Everything else—relations with people — is very secondary, because I have not the gift for that,” Vincent van Gogh writes to his brother of his painting in Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh, published in 1950 (Internet Archive). His last sixty-seven days in Auvers-sur-Oise are the subject of French director Maurice Pialat’s biopic, told in a slow and unsentimental manner that illumines the man behind the work he devoted his life to. “About my malady I can do nothing. I suffer a little just now — the thing is that after that long seclusion the days seem to me like weeks […] As my work gets on a bit, serenity will come.”

Van Gogh brings into sharp awareness the personal relationships that forged the Dutch painter’s final works and days in the countryside, a train ride away from Paris, in the last bend of his tragic arc. Vincent is played by a lanky, haggard Jacques Dutronc, whose brief entanglement with his physician Gachet’s (Gérard Séty) young daughter, Marguerite (Alexandra London), lets in light to his lonely life. His art dealer brother, Theo (Bernard Le Coq), Theo’s wife, Johanna (Corinne Bourdon), and the prostitute Cathy (Elsa Zylberstein) remain his few close attachments, and the colorful array of Post-Impressionist paintings made during this stay becomes a pathway for Pialat to evoke a sense for the emotionally volatile man’s ambivalent engagement with the social world of his time.

In Dutronc’s performance, we see a prolific artist alternately amused at life and elusive love and filled with a bitter rage at his own obscurity. Prior to his stay in Auvers, the painter suffers from a psychological break and “fits,” what he refers to in his letters as “depression” and “nervous trouble” that lead to his seeking treatment from Doctor Gachet. Staying at a cheap inn nearby, Vincent paints his portrait (Portrait of Dr. Gachet) and his twenty-one-year-old daughter at the piano (Marguerite Gachet at the Piano), pieces that, along with the collection of canvases his patron Theo carelessly stores under his bed, go unappreciated for all their experimental vision, resulting in a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a cornfield. The headstrong Marguerite, for one, complains virulently of his depiction of her, rejecting his representation.

Van GoghDespite Marguerite’s ambivalence about her paramour’s talent, alternately celebrating and denouncing him depending on his moods and treatment, she accompanies Vincent as an unlikely source of emotional support throughout Pialat’s retelling, having fallen in love with the irresponsible painter. When she trails him to the Parisian underground when he disappears for a weekend, Pialat’s capturing of the quiet, bucolic lives of the meek countryside French contrasts starkly with the revelry, frolic, and play that are emblematic of the seedy brothel Vincent frequents, an extended scene of the colorful characters merrily dancing and marching an especially memorable cinematic visual and coming-together despite his inner turmoil.

The inclusion of the rising art scene that revolves around Van Gogh’s circle is suggestive of the acrimonious rivalry that plagues him like a nest of wasps: Paul Gauguin and Pierre-Auguste Renoir are repeatedly brought up as successful contemporaries he finds himself unfavorably compared to, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec makes a notable cameo. An avid art collector, Doctor Gachet displays in his house a Pissaro and two Cézannes — in the film shown as a Renoir — that Vincent brusquely dismisses. His polarities of emotion indicate his declining mental state as he alternates between grandiosity and despair about his lack of success.

These pronounced bursts of aggression and worsening alcoholism are starkly realistic onscreen, as he fights against the unyielding feelings of failure that accompany his poverty and dependence on Theo for sustenance. In the meantime, the infamous ear-cutting is left unacknowledged. Instead of sensationalizing the myth of the mad genius, Pialat slowly reveals with humanistic care how Van Gogh’s psychoses are what impair his ability to connect, pulling him into the canyon that is his painting. He reserves for a few short scenes these painting moments, instead throwing into relief his difficult relationships: Vincent antagonizes everyone, including his family, believing his dealer brother to be undermining his success; a desperate Theo, unable to sell his paintings, voices to Jo that he wishes he would paint like Renoir instead.

With pathos and irony, the irascible, distant painter grapples with his emotions and the way in which his perception of estrangement — and the timeless movement that resulted from his solitary vision — would be enough to drive anyone crazy. Sympathetic in its meandering way, Van Gogh celebrates the man behind the art he is remembered for and how he got to where he was — his plights, his flights of fancy, and at the heart of it all, his putting his madness to work.

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