I’ve decided to start supplementing my book reviews with ones of their respective adaptations because… hey, summer. Also, I’ve found it’s just as easy and enjoyable to drink while watching a movie as reading a book.
The concept is the same as that of my book/cocktail reviews: Since most of these films have been either completely or partially forgotten by history — with on very notable exception…
…– I’ll take a look and let you know if there’s anything I think is worth revisiting. A word of caution though: by design, most of these movies are older than your grandma, so if you’re one of those people who’s like, “I appreciate Citizen Kane, but I don’t enjoy it,” then this series is not for you. Go back to Buzzfeed and your 90’s nostalgia. Go on.
For the rest of us however, let’s pour ourselves a drink and get that projector rolling.
Released in 1956, the film version of Lust for Life was produced 22 years after its namesake was published. The book was enjoying a resurgence in bestsellership due the Cold War reawakening public interest in rugged individualists choosing a path outside society. Still, mention of Van Gogh’s communism is carefully avoided (and his atheism is toned down a whole heck of a bunch).
Regardless of any political motivations, waiting for the popularization of color film was absolutely the right choice in adapting Lust for Life. In fact, the movie really has an advantage over the book in that it’s one visual medium translating another. Vincente Minnelli (director a bunch of things you know the names of but have never actually seen) takes full advantage of that fact with some gorgeous cinematography, most of it shot on location in the European locales where Van Gogh lived and worked.
The vivid colors and details of the film, along with a proliferation of medium shots, make it feel like a living painting, and Minnelli recreated many of the inspirations for Van Gogh’s works as he must have seen them in life, many times explicitly…
…and many times subtly.
MGM was also able to borrow a huge collection of original paintings for the film. Which is a really nice touch and everything, but the only part of the movie that feels kind of dated (or maybe just too on the nose) is when the movie will cut away to still shots of them. The DVD commentary points out that it’s almost in a documentary style, as if the director wished he could just voiceover with: “Here’s what’s going on in Van Gogh’s life, and here’s the art he produced as a consequence.” This movie was almost like a virtual museum tour for those pre-GIS audiences.
Our tormented hero is played by Kirk Douglas. Hey, I’ve heard of him! Wow, I had no idea he was that old.
Anyway, Douglas is just pitch perfect as Vincent. Physically, he not only looks like him, but he also embodies that weird combination of a sensitive soul in a burly, unwieldy frame Irving Stone describes in his book.
The performance that really sold me, though, was that of Anthony Quinn, playing the most Mexican Frenchman the world has ever seen.
His character is Vincent’s “friend” and artist, Paul Gauguin. Quinn’s every move and inflection just perfectly encapsulates this creative, brilliant, womanizing jackass. I hated him, and at the same time, I totally understood Vincent’s heart-breaking devotion to him. Until Quinn showed up, I probably would have said the movie was only decent, if pretty to look at.
Lust for Life follows the book quite faithfully, although of course compressing a lot of it, as film adaptations do. Honestly, I almost think they should had cut more. The first half especially, which encompasses Vincent taking up and then quitting missionary work, his failed pursuit of his cousin Kay, and his common-law marriage to prostitute Sien, goes by so quickly I barely had time to feel anything for it.
But for the most part, Minnelli takes advantage of this economical storytelling. For instance, I like the part with Rachel the prostitute much better in the film than in the book:
In just a few, dialogue-free frames, we have all the foreshadowing we need for the ear incident. In the book, there’s at least three different scenes where Rachel is saying something like, “Tee hee! Your funny little ears! Break one of and give it to me!” and it’s like We. Get. It. Everyone already knows it’s coming; there’s no need to hit the point so hard.
Interestingly enough, Van Gogh’s surviving (at the time) nephew and namesake hated the idea of a Hollywood production and refused to cooperate with MGM, even threatening to sue if they excerpted Van Gogh’s actual letters to his father. They still put his character in the film though. Or, at least, they put in a cradle for Vincent to look at off-screen.
I don’t think little Vincent Van Gogh had any reason to worry, though. Lust for Life wasn’t Hollywooded up too much the way a lot of other “true stories” are: There’s no insipid love story, no cliched and one-dimensional villains, no glurgy inspirational message. For a 1950’s Hollywood film, it’s actually pretty gritty and dark. Again, I defer to the DVD commentary, which points out that Douglas was one acting’s earliest embracers of the antihero. In this and other performances, he eschewed the Prince Charming archetype. He was a leading man who wasn’t afraid to be demented and violent and dirty and ugly.
I don’t often say this, but if you have to choose between the movie and the book, I’d say Lust for Life the movie has a higher emotional and visual impact. Now, put your pitchforks away — the book is still pretty good, and I think they actually work best together, the book to give you the fuller and more detailed story and the movie to give you the living colors Van Gogh was so famous for.
Welp, my next review better be a fun one because I am just emotionally exhausted. I don’t want to do any more crying over the tragic life of Vincent Van Gogh for, like, at least a year or something.
Lust for Life is available on Amazon Instant Watch.