Now, I'm not saying that European artists are kind of crazy, but Hitler was known to paint from time to time, and while that isn't to say that Vincent van Gogh was as crazy as Hitler, it is to say that he has mutilated himself for some girl he had a crush on, and that's all that needs to be said. Well, I don't know about any other kind of European artist, but the French appear to be insane when it comes to the art filmmaking, what with all of their weird and melodramatic experiments with storytelling, which is why this film's writer and director, Maurice Pialat, is trying something different by keeping things realist and, by extension, kind of dull. No, people, this film isn't really all that bland, or at least it isn't up until an admittedly kind of dull final act, and not just because you can't help but wonder just how slow the final product would have been if it was yet another overly arty French filmmaking mess, but the fact of the matter is that real life isn't too terribly exciting, even when the real life you're meditating upon is that of a somewhat disturbed... Dutch painter of the 19th century. Well, shoot, now that I think about it, this film's subject matter doesn't even sound all that exciting on paper, so I reckon that's why Pialat got Jacques Dutronc, a French pop-rock star, to play van Gogh, as he hoped that Dutronc would get people to think of delightful French diddies to keep them from getting too bored, which would be great and all if it wasn't for the fact that I kept expecting van Gogh to bust out an acoustic guitar and start singing "Et Moi, Et Moi, Et Moi". I wonder whose facial expression is the most hilarious: that of the few people who think that I'm serious about expecting a van Gogh musical number, or that of the countless people who have absolutely no idea who in the world I'm talking about. So yeah, Dutronc was essentially the French Bob Dylan, and then he moved into being the French Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, then your regular old traditional French pop-rock star, then a French crooner, then, I don't know, the prime minister of France or something, and now, well, I don't know what he's up to. Quite frankly, I don't carry, just as long as he's still a good actor, because he sure could carry a film as sure as he can carry a note, and yet, with that said, it's not like this film can fully paint over its problems.
Don't let this film's fairly broad title fool you, as this film chronicles, not the full life and times of the late, great Vincent van Go, but the painter's notorious last 67 days, during which an enging story is found, though, in this film, not quite as fleshed out as it probably should be, for although we're all hopefully aware of Vincent van Gogh, and although I'm not asking that this film crowbar more material into its already overlong two-and-a-half-hour runtime to give more flesh-out to our characters, the film feels underdeveloped. Sure, eventual exposition does a decent job of getting you used to the happenings and humans who drive this drama, while Maurice Pialat's realist atmosphere further bonds you with the film's humanity, but more immediate flesh-out stands to be more abundant, because as things stand, development shortcomings in this film do damage to engagement value, which further suffers at the hands of the very realist approach that helps in compensating for exposition issues. There's only so much dramatic kick to this dramatization of a dramatic period (Drama, drama, drama and more drama), as Pialat wishes to not water down subjet matter of this type with histrionics and articifial emotional resonance, and more often than not this dramatic formula works, but it's not without its problems, including an atmosphere that isn't as dry as I feared, - thanks to reasonably spirited writing and acting keeping entertainment value up, at least to a certain extent - but not exactly frantic, being just restrained enough to, after a while, lose you, at least momentarily. If this film's atmospheric slow spells do nothing else, they call more to attention the film's biggest issue: padding, because at 158 minutes of only one segment out of a story that is undoubtedly rich with dramatic potential, this film outstays its welcome a bit, reinforcing realism with the occasional needless moment of nothingness, if not more than a few moments in which material gets to be a bit too fatty around the edges, typically of a somewhat familiar nature. It's not monotonous, but this film's excessive formula gets to be repetitious, leaving the film to wander along, seemingly in circles, with enough intrigue to keep you compelled through and through, though not with enough dynamic kick to keep you really locked in. This film is a very human one, and I commend it for having such humanity, and spicing it all up with an active attention to genuineness over melodrama, but much too often, this film's realist meandering goes a bit too far, slowing down the momentum of the film, both in atmospheric pacing and plot structure, but still not taking as much time as it probably should to really flesh things out, and that does a number on the final product. Of course, when it's all said and done, the film's issues, while undeniable, aren't quite as considerable as they could have been, so it's not like you should go into this film expecting the usual underwhelming misfire you can find on a list of Cannes Film Festival highlights, but rather, a genuinely rewarding film, with effectiveness than can be found even within the smallest of aspects.
Actively resistent against overly cinematic sensibilities, this film very rarely plays up musiciality, which, upon actually coming up, outside of a nice little jingle at the credits, is found, not in post-production, but in first-party audio, something that is, as you can imagine, rarely accompanied by the piano and occasional band that drive what musical aspects there are in this film, so it's not like this film is driven by its soundtrack, but when music is, in fact, played up, it makes its limited time with us count by livening up atmosphere, though not so much so that Pialat contradicts his noable realist intentions. These musical moments, as well as all too limited occasions in which cinematographers Gilles Henry and Emmanuel Machuel find an attractive visual to play up, are rather rarely explored in this opus whose artistic value is most driven by storytelling artistry, but they are here, punching up the engagement value behind a story that is strong enough to carry itself on its own, as reflected by the fact that it, well, mostly has to carry itself on its own. There's not a whole lot of build-up to this particularly intriguing final chapter to an intriguing life, yet that doesn't stop the chapter in question for running a touch too long, but no matter how underdeveloped or overlong this film's story is, it is intriguing on paper, alone, with plenty of dramatic potential that isn't too extensively played up, but played up just enough within Maurice Pialat's clever script for you to gain an adequate understanding of this film's characterization and progression. Pialat's writing isn't outstanding, but it is commendable in its wit and realism, which helps in bringing the intriguing behind this film's worthy subject matter to life, and is itself brought to life by inspiration with Pialat's direction, whose restraint all too often does damage to pacing and atmospheric bite, but all but works wonders when heavier material falls into play and is not overplayed, but rather presented with enough inimtate genuineness for you to bond with the film's happenings and dramatic aspects, no matter how realistically restrained they are. No, people, the film won't exactly be jamming on your heartstrings, as this is not that kind of film that would play up cinematic dramatic touches, going driven by a very realist genuineness that could have been executed all wrong and left you utterly distanced from the final product, but is ultimately backed by enough inspiration for you to be sold on this world. What further sells you on the humanity behind this very human drama is, of course, the acting, which is strong in most everyone, but arguably at its strongest within leading man Jacques Dutronc, who, even then, isn't given a whole lot to work with, thanks to this film's being relatively held back in its portrayal of Vincent van Gogh's infamous mental and emotional health issues, but convinces consistently as the legendary artist, and when material is, in fact, called in, Dutronc plays with effective emotional range to further convince you of the layers and depths behind this brilliant and unstable soul. The film isn't thoroughly enthralling, nor is it even as powerful as it probably would have been if it was tighter, more fleshed out and - dare I say it? - more celebratory of dramatic aspects, rather than entirely realist, but where this effort could have fallen flat as underwhelming and too carried away with its uniqueness, like so many other meditative dramas you find at Cannes, inspiration behind restrained artistry proves to be compelling enough to make this film a reward one.
When the final stroke comes, you're left with a portrait of Vincent van Gogh that stands to take more time with immediate development, and less time meditating on excess material that is made all the worse by a somewhat dryly slow atmospheric pacing, and sparks the repetition that could have driven the final product into underwhelmingness, but is ultimately battled back enough to keep you compelled, because whether it be spawned from such ever so rare atmospheric compliments as lovely music, or spawned from inspired writing, direction and writing that bring an intriguingly worthy story to life, there is enough kick to engagement value to make Maurice Pialat's "Van Gogh" a surprisingly consistently engaging realist drama that may have its natural shortcomings, but ultimately stands as worth watching.
3/5 - Good