Biographical portraits remain a favorite cinematic genre, but capturing the creative spirit of an artist invariably proves elusive. For every masterpiece and effective work, there are dozens that forgettably flounder in mediocrity and failure. Far more successful works about musical genius than painters have been put to celluloid over the years—Amadeus, Immortal Beloved, and Scorsese's recent Dylan documentary No Direction Home. Those films could harmoniously underscore their imagery with auditory cues, but this proves much more difficult with painters and writers. While Debussy immediately suggests the French impressionists, even that doesn't directly connect the artist with his work.
Only Julian Schnabel's Basquiat comes to mind as a film that successfully found ways to illustrate the creative mind of a painter. On the other extreme is Ed Harris' excruciatingly self-indulgent over-the-top portrayal in Pollock. Of course the Actor's Guild fell all over Harris' Jackson Pollock project to reward him with an Oscar nomination, but the film remains a painful endurance contest that I never care to waste a Netfllix rental on.
But I'm digressing here—musing why the most enigmatic painter of all time has yet to have a definitive film devoted to him—namely Vincent Van Gogh. If anyone knows of an obscure film somewhere that does him justice, please let me know, and I'll check it out. Having once flown to LA for an exclusive Van Gogh exhibition and journeyed to both Arles and Auvers, I'm primed to give any Van Gogh related work a chance. Robert Altman's Vincent & Theo remains credible and Paul Davids' rather silly Starry Night extends an interesting premise, but neither promise to last in posterity anywhere close to Van Gogh's numerous self-portraits. That's why I eagerly anticipated Alexander Barnett's The Eyes of Van Gogh.
Barnett has long been a Van Gogh aficionado, having lectured extensively on the life of Van Gogh, Gauguin and the Impressionists at universities and libraries across Europe. Definitely a labor of love, The Eyes of Van Gogh attempts to get inside the artist's tortured mind during his year-long voluntary stay inside the insane asylum at St. Remy. Although the asylum provides the present tense, numerous hallucinations, nightmares, and dreams transport the artist to Arles and frequent imaginary encounters with Theo and other key figures in his life.
Heavily mining the letters between Vincent and his brother Theo for material, Barnett supplies a great deal of verbosity that becomes both the strength and the main weakness of the film. It's a tremendous challenge to portray such a genius on screen when he's isolated. How do you portray Van Gogh's active mind and his internal thoughts without blasting the audience with machine gun like dialogue that expounds on his guilt, fears, insecurities, artistic theories, and dreams for making his mark in the world? Barnett nobly attempts to communicate this primarily through rapid fire soliloquy, but it just doesn't work real well as a film. The hand held camera and 360 degree rotations signal that we're aligned inside the mind of the artist, but the sheer amount of words alone make the film difficult to sit through—especially at an hour and fifty minute running time.
Some of the best moments are exchanges with Gauguin, and if you approach the dialogue as an academic study for film history, it works better. Otherwise, it's just not realistic that Van Gogh would speak so stiffly and academically in a social context. All of the exchanges take place inside Vincent's room in the Yellow House at Arles, so that limits the scope and interactions. So we see them talk about the local prostitutes and hear Vincent express envy for Gauguin's womanizing skill, yet we see none of this in action. While the filmmaker clearly intends that we get inside Vincent's mind, he relies too much on words.
Even the paintings are more like historic footnotes than integral, as a handful of reproductions are strewn distantly in the room. The only close-ups of Van Gogh painting are shown from the backs of the canvases, so don't expect any revealing views of Starry Night or any of his twisted olive trees and cypresses to accompany his self-loathing rants. And the walks in the wooded areas of New York are scarcely reminiscent of the Arles countryside. Of course, including more accurate visuals and illustrating Van Gogh's thoughts more cinematically would require a larger budget and add complexity to the structure.
Screenwriter/director/lead actor Barnett certainly conveys earnestness and intensity and is a dead ringer for Van Gogh, with his gaunt appearance and short cropped red hair. He refrains from obvious and overdone theatricality by underplaying Van Gogh's famous ear severing scene, and does remain true to Van Gogh's thoughts as communicated through his letters. Unfortunately, the film is destined for a very limited audience as presently constructed; it plays as a Cliff's Notes visual introduction to the artist's letters to his brother. Thus, art history teachers may find excerpts useful for the classroom. It's an honest portrait that educates, but it doesn't inspire sufficiently to rank as the definitive film on Van Gogh. At least not strong enough to knock Altman off its current small pedestal.