Sunday, May 9, 2021

#2,565. Lust for Life (1956) - The Films of Kirk Douglas


Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch artist whose paintings were revered only after his death, once said “I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process”.

Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 film Lust for Life seems to have taken these words to heart. A gorgeous motion picture (shot on-location in many of the towns and provinces in which the real Van Gogh resided), Lust for Life tells the story of a man who poured his very being into his creations, only to see his mind turn on him in the end.

Having failed as a Christian minister, Vincent Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas) falls back on his true love; art. With the financial support of his devoted brother Theo (James Donald), Vincent creates hundreds of sketches and paintings over the course of a decade, primarily in the South of France, where he resides for a while with good friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin (Anthony Quinn).

Alas, Vincent’s mental state has always been fragile at best. After spending time in an institution under the care of Dr. Gachet (Everett Sloane), Vincent feels he’s once again ready to set out on his own, but has he truly conquered the illness, or will his demons win out in in the end?

Douglas delivers a career-defining performance as Van Gogh, portraying a tormented soul who is governed by his emotions; the early scenes in which he becomes the spiritual leader of a small mining community are contrasted by his romantic obsession with his cousin, the recently widowed Kay (Jeanette Sterke), who ultimately rejects his aggressive advances.

In these sequences and all others - especially those detailing Van Gogh’s tumultuous friendship with Gauguin (played with gusto by Quinn, who would win an Academy Award for his performance) - Douglas generates empathy for a man whose motivations remain a mystery; we connect with his Van Gogh on an emotional level while, at the same time, aligning ourselves with his brother Theo, whose only wish is that Vincent finds happiness. We want that for Vincent Van Gogh as well, even when it’s obvious that peace and tranquility are beyond his grasp.

Vincent Van Gogh has been the subject of several films in recent years, from Robert Altman’s oft-overlooked Vincent and Theo to 2018’s At Eternity’s Gate, in which Willem Dafoe played the tortured artist. There was even an extraordinary animated feature – 2017’s Loving Vincent - that adapted the style of a Van Gogh painting as it related the sad tale of the artist’s life and death.

Yet as good as these later films are, Lust for Life, thanks to the amazing performance of its star, stands as the quintessential Van Gogh film.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

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