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Vincente Minnelli's Lust for Life is a love-it-or-hate-it movie. Viewers looking for Art and Culture are moved by its dramatic presentation of the tortured life of Vincent Van Gogh. They see Kirk Douglas' high-adrenaline interpretation of the artist as representing the conflicting passions of frustrated creativity. Non-subscribers to Vincente Minnelli's art-directed approach to cinema sometimes deride Lust for Life as Kitsch or high camp. They're also prone to roll their eyes at Douglas'es growling attempts to make artistic frustration ooze out of his pores. But producer John Houseman's taste prevails throughout. The filmmakers go to great lengths to bring the beauty of Van Gogh's canvasses to the screen -- going so far as to secure originals from galleries and collectors, to be carefully photographed.
There had been a more sophisticated (and perhaps jaded) vision of a misunderstood painter in Albert Lewin's The Moon and Sixpence, but that neglected classic is about the relationship between the Artist and Society. Minnelli's film keeps its focus on the Artist as a lost soul struggling against his own alienation from the world.
The expensive MGM production was filmed in locations across Western Europe. This interpretation includes the notion that Vincent Van Gogh may have suffered from mental illness. Young misfit Vincent (Kirk Douglas) wants to become a preacher. His dissatisfied church superiors send him to an impoverished mining community, where he identifies so strongly with the hardships of the miners that he loses his job. Returning home, Vincent alienates his family with his obsessive behaviors and his unwanted courting of his cousin Kay (Jeanette Sterke). After a depressing period living with Christine, an ex-prostitute (Pamela Brown), Vincent returns to his generous older brother Theo (James Donald), who helps him by providing an allowance, sending him to the country to paint and introducing him to the vibrant Paris art scene. Daring new schools of painting are making news while the painters themselves continue to grow hungry. Vincent tries working in tandem with the equally impoverished Paul Gauguin (Anthony Quinn) but falls victim to increasing attacks of depression. More serious bouts of dementia follow, including one episode of self-mutilation.
Director Vincente Minnelli had been disappointed when MGM wouldn't let him film the musical Brigadoon on location in Scotland, but for Lust for Life an extensive shoot abroad enables him to bring real French backgrounds to the screen. The film uses a traditional approach to film the story of an artist -- make reality take on the look of the artist's work. Minnelli obviously had a fine time re-staging scenes from the famous canvasses, of fields of wheat and workers threshing with bent backs.
Cameraman Freddie Young used filters and probably spray-painted a lot of vegetation to make the live-action scenes dissolve-match beautifully with Van Gogh's real works. The 1950s saw a spate of movies on art and painters, such as H.G. Clouzot's The Mystery of Picasso. With its widescreen Metrocolor vistas of Van Gogh's work Lust for Life certainly knocked art aficionados for a loop.
Kirk Douglas is actually quite good as Van Gogh once one becomes accustomed to the scale of his performance. Douglas tends to be an externalizer. Viewers preferring emotions to be downplayed may think that his teeth-gnashing close-ups as he tears at his shock of red hair are a bit too much. The iconic stare-in-the-mirror scene does indeed make Douglas look like he's transforming into Popeye's Poopdeck Pappy. But how else would one present a man so keyed up that he shreds off one of his ears with a pair of scissors?
The plot stays fairly faithful to the basic details of Van Gogh's life, foreshadowing his demise in ways that aren't all that alienating. Douglas is genuinely moving in the moment where he tells a friendly nun (Marion Ross of Happy Days) that death can come in a bright and sunny field. Norman Corwin's script alludes to prostitution and perhaps gives a nod (in an actor's reaction) to Theo Van Gogh's syphilitic condition. These details were more clearly elaborated in Robert Altman's later film Vincent and Theo.
A fine supporting cast bolsters Douglas' central portrait. James Donald was in plenty of productions previously but his Hollywood career took off with this portrayal of Theo. His devotion gives us a reason to care about Vincent, as we respect Theo and his problems. Anthony Quinn makes a good Gauguin. His underplaying was good enough to win the film's only Oscar, which is all the more surprising considering that he's in the picture for just barely over a reel.
Other actors are a list of talented favorites, Americans and Brits to the last. Perhaps the decision to use no French actors was taken to avoid a conflict of credibility. The wonderful Pamela Brown (I Know Where I'm Going!) is a desultory Christine, and Everett Sloane's doctor-to-the-art-world seems less interested in curing Van Gogh than associating with him. Scattered through the tale are top talent like Niall MacGinness (Curse of the Demon), Henry Daniell (The Body Snatcher), Jill Bennett (The Charge of the Light Brigade), Lionel Jeffries (First Men in the Moon), Laurence Naismith (Village of the Damned), and, if you look quickly, William Phipps (Invaders from Mars).
The Warner Home Video Blu-ray of Lust for Life is a knockout, with the HD encoding looking exceedingly rich, vibrant and razor sharp. The cinematography of Freddie Young and Russell Harlan is dark and rich. Minnelli's visual compositions are more formalized than usual, even if his effort to imitate the look of Van Gogh's canvases makes a subtle contribution to the Kitsch angle. The images of the paintings themselves are also impressive, so carefully filmed that the colors leap off the screen and the thick oils have depth and shape. MGM's film materials appear not to have faded at all. Either that, or Warners/Turner has gone to the expense of a full digital restoration. Really, this is one fine-looking disc.
Miklos Rosza's tumultuous music suits the film well, providing a 'stormy' emotional context to scenes of Vincent trying to work in the bright sunlight. The music greatly enhances the movie's many wordless passages. Many of the composer's themes sound alike -- his noir compositions are almost interchangeable. While listening to this score I kept flashing forward to Rozsa's wonderful work for Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
The disc extras include the theatrical trailer and also the impressive MGM short subject that is shown often on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel, Darkness into Light, about the making of the film on location in France. It was left off the earlier DVD from 2006.
The audio commentary is by USC's Dr. Drew Casper, who has written extensively about Vincente Minnelli and knows his stuff. Casper makes a case for Lust for Life being one of the top MGM films ever, and I followed his points even if I'm not as mesmerized by the Minnelli magic. I mean, the man made that resounding studio clunker The Drapes (actually, The Cobweb), so he was a mortal like the rest of us despite the giddy exceptions of superb pictures like Cabin in the Sky, The Band Wagon (soon to be released in Blu-ray) and Some Came Running.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Lust for Life Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.