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‘Van Gogh’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 30, 1992

There is one mesmerizing element in French director Maurice Pialat's otherwise rambling, unfocused new film portrait, "Van Gogh," and that is the face of actor Jacques Dutronc.

A face like Dutronc's is one of the little miracles of moviegoing. It is magnificent, yet without a trace of handsomeness. At times, it seems almost inhuman, more like the face of a dog than a man. At others, it appears almost saintly, Christlike, the face of beatific suffering. It's a face you could explore endlessly without resolution, a face of infinite possibilities.

It is Dutronc's quality of volatile unpredictability that gives "Van Gogh" its quixotic edge. It feels at times as if scores of movies have been made about Vincent van Gogh. (A friend called him the "Amy Fisher of the art world.") And most previous movie van Goghs have been depicted as vibrating masses of genius, bundles of spitting nerves. But Pialat's van Gogh is more complete and believable and much more human than the others; for the first time on screen, he's allowed to breathe, laugh, clown around and chase girls.

It's great fun to see van Gogh joke around playfully with his brother Theo (Bernard Le Coq), and, in places, the film has an improvised, lighter-than-air feel. But a sense of dread can always be felt too, because we know that the painter's mood might suddenly shift, turning the tide of the moment violently back upon itself. In those moments, it's truly as if an entirely different person has appeared, and Dutronc executes these transformations so effortlessly that we never know where the movie is going to take us.

Dutronc's van Gogh doesn't know when or how or to what extremes his emotions will take him, either. He's mad as a loon, but he's a real person, and Dutronc makes his pain the pain of a real man and not of some distant, abstract suffering genius. This van Gogh is someone you've known or might have known, and that, alone, is an accomplishment.

Pialat's probing, voyeuristic camera draws his subject in close, but his elliptical narrative style is too sketchy and without context, leaving confusing gaps in the chronology. Because van Gogh was an impressionist, Pialat is just banal enough in his thinking to shoot the film impressionistically. But what is the viewer who's not aware that van Gogh shot himself going to make of the scene in which, after focusing on a single tree in a field along a path, Pialat observes van Gogh as he struggles down the path with a bright scarlet stain on his white shirt? That somebody hit the great man with a tomato?

There is something gained in Pialat's style, though, and perhaps better than any film on the subject, this one captures the spirit of scandalous abandon that defines the era of the cancan and the impressionists. The film's atmosphere may be vivid -- as it is in the vibrantly staged brothel scenes where, drunk on absinthe, the patrons dance and carouse openly with their prostitute friends, or in the almost shockingly frank scenes between van Gogh and his mistress, Maguerite Gachet (Alexandra London) -- but it is also often perplexingly scattershot. Still, though "Van Gogh" may be puzzling and, at times, tiresome, it rips aside a layer of artifice to reveal the raw genius of the man, not the legend.

"Van Gogh," in French with English subtitles, is rated R for nudity and adult material.

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