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‘Van Gogh’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 01, 1993

Another year, another movie about Van Gogh, or so it would seem. "Van Gogh," Maurice Pialat's 155-minute movie about the painter's last months, hardly fills a vacuum of need. But very often, this drama feels like fresh, direct insight.

At its best (which occurs often enough for you to go), "Van Gogh" provides a sense of realness -- that feeling of the big rush of nothingness artists are supposed to make beautiful sense of. Director Pialat, a former (and failed) painter himself, is strongly interested in the non-romantic passing of time.

This is the year 1890, at Auvers-sur-Oise, France. The real Van Gogh, who has completed a rest period at an asylum near Saint-Remy-de-Provence, is to embark on his final round. Said to be recuperated, he is soon to kill himself at 37 with a self-inflicted gunshot.

In the movie, you don't see Van Gogh (Jacques Dutronc) complete the final brush stroke of a masterpiece, then call up old Gauguin for a celebratory absinthe. You do see a thin, stringy man, suffering from headaches, enjoying whores and moping around irascibly. "Van Gogh" denies you familiar highlights, keeps you from his working elbow and avoids the Ear Thing. But it shows you the quotidian stuff in between. This is the story of an artist being human, carrying canvases out or lugging them back in -- their famous images intentionally out of sight.

In Pialat's film, that non-artistic activity includes chatting with admirer-patron Dr. Gachet (Gerard Sety), visiting with brother Theo (Bernard Le Coq) and his wife Jo (Corinne Bourdon), and consorting with cheerful Renoir-supple women on painterly riverbanks or in bordello salons.

Here's where the movie's Life magazine posings occasionally undo its quasi-documentary integrity. Photo-opportunity famousness occurs when Toulouse-Lautrec is seen taking a snooze amid the laughing girls and the cigarette smoke. Women seem to treat Van Gogh like James Bond -- including beautiful whore Cathy (Elsa Zylberstein) and Dr. Gachet's daughter, Marguerite (Alexandra London).

Even the hostility expressed by an innkeeper's daughter (Leslie Azzouli) seems cover for an intrigued crush. Was Vincent really a paintbrush-bearing love animal?

As the eponymous painter, Dutronc (an actor well-known to French audiences for his erstwhile Dylanesque songwriting days) exudes a marvelous, childlike air. His performance somewhat echoes Tim Roth's finer interpretation in Robert Altman's "Vincent & Theo."

Both actors share a sense of neediness, of innocence and vulnerability, as well as a melancholy, messianic thinness. Of all the elements in Pialat's movie, it is Dutronc's presence that most lingers. He expresses little of the glorious rapture demonstrated by his real-life counterpart in letters to his brother Theo. Nor is he that apocryphal, ear-slicing loony-genius. What he does is retain the mystery, and if there's one staple about Van Gogh, it's the unknown.

"Van Gogh" is in French with subtitles.

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