Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Maurice Pialat's masterpiece? Maybe. In any case, VAN GOGH is certainly among his best

In its new and sensationally beautiful and crisp Blu-ray transfer, Maurice Pialat's homage to the bourgeoisie's "favorite painter," Vincent van Gogh, is considered by some to be this French filmmaker's masterpiece. In the humble opinion of TrustMovies, however, Pialat never quite produced a masterpiece. His films, though some of them are very good, fall short of that exalted mark. Even so, VAN GOGH, released in 1991 and now available here in the USA on home video -- thanks to the efforts of the Cohen Film Collection -- is certainly the best of any of Pialat's work that I have so far seen.

As we might expect from most other of Pialat's work, the late filmmaker (shown at left, on set) gives us the man above the artist, while still taking in that art and van Gogh's commitment to it. Behavior is paramount here, with the signature Pialat style -- near-documentary -- on display at its best, which means enormous attention to detail and character, discovered via action, dialog, and all the oddball life going on around Vincent himself. The film begins with his arrival via rail in Auvers-sur-Oise, which he calls "a charming town" and from his garret window provides him a small, choice view.

As played by that superb French actor Jacques Dutronc -- above, who has proven himself over the years to be especially fine in crime drama (Toutes peines confondues) and may here have found his finest role -- van Gogh comes alive in ways not seen previously in films about the artist: certainly not in Lust for Life, and not even, I think, in Robert Altman's very good version, Vincent & Theo, in which Tim Roth was able to go bananas (and quite impressively, of course) as the tortured artist. That latter film's release and minor success in the USA may have helped preclude the release of Pialat's version on these shores the following year.

M. Pialat disdains melodrama to concentrate on plain old behavior, including the quieter moments that build character and event from the inside out. These includes everything from interactions with landlord, doctor, family (brother Theo and wife) to of course the various love/sex interests such as that doctor's daughter (Alexandra London, above) and a local whore (given great energy and not a little depth by the wonderful Elsa Zylberstein).

Théo is played with a moving combination of love and frustration by Bernard LeCoq (above, left, in an enchanting and filthy scene in which van Gogh recites a Toulouse-Lautrec limerick, complete with dirty visuals).

There are enough moments here in which women's need to come out from under the shadow of men may have you thinking that Pialat had grown a feminist conscience. We see this in at least three of the females on view: the doctor's daughter, Marguerite; the whore, Cathy; and another of the whores who wants to be a painter, too. ("No, you're a model," van Gogh curtly explains to her.)

From the village idiot (who asks our man to capture him on canvas) to a prolonged line dance (above) in the music hall/bordello, this movie teems with life. Toward its conclusion, the story necessarily gives way to more and more bad behavior on Vincent's part and accompanying melodrama.

But even then, Pialat generally opts for the behavior over the drama and so spares us some of the usual cliché, even if he is unable to finally serve up the kind of powerful, commanding conclusion we might want. Maybe it's better we don't get this and instead are left with more of the man and less of the "tortured artist."

The film runs a very long two-hours and 39 minutes, yet not one of those minutes will bore. Each is too full of life. From the Cohen Film Collection, Van Gogh hits the street today, Tuesday, July 12, on Blu-ray and DVD. The Blu-ray contains two discs -- one of the film itself, the second featuring interviews with actors Dutronc and LeCoq, its cinematographer, and French director and fan of the film Xavier Giannoli (of Marguerite fame).

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