As a new Van Gogh exhibition opens in London about the Dutch painter’s time here, there’s a coincidental tie-in release of Julian Schnabel’s film about the artist’s final years in Arles and just outside Paris.
Willem Dafoe got an Oscar nomination for his Vincent and it is a strong performance, by far the most rewarding element of a tiresomely ornate and mannered film.
The hand-painted animated feature Loving Vincent from last year covered similar territory but had a visual curiosity in replicating van Gogh’s subjects and canvasses. Schnabel has a similar approach but uses only live action, including some fairly uninspired versions of the paintings.
Dafoe’s Vincent teeters on the brink as he seeks the sublime, attempting to see beyond the life of things and into the ‘eternity’ of the title. There’s lots of him twirling around, feeling the Mistral wind, rolling in the dusty fields, gazing at the swirls of the trees and the cascade of southern light. He has arguments (delivered in disappointingly leaden dialogue) about art with Oscar Isaac’s Paul Gaugin and cuts his ear off in a bid to keep Gaugin from leaving him.
We don’t see the ear-cutting scene – this isn’t Tarantino – but a to-camera scene with Dafoe in the hat and bandage get-up familiar from the famous self-portrait, explaining himself and his actions to a psychiatrist. There are various turns from Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric (alumnae of Schnabe’s Diving Bell and the Butterfly) as well as Mads Mikkelsen as a priest and Rupert Friend as the increasingly exasperated brother Theo.
The later scenes, like Loving Vincent, posit the theory that some youths clowning around shot Vincent rather than him committing suicide.
Dafoe is always interesting to watch and his wide face and gappy teeth fill the screen, providing flashes of passion and pain, building from artistic obsession to drunken excess to dangerous mania, particularly in one scene that has him trying to position a shepherdess so he can paint her, an encounter that tips over into sexual harassment, perhaps even more. For all Dafoe’s charisma, he fails to make us really care or worry about Vincent, even if we sympathise with his frustration at the philistines who don’t see the world as he does.
Schabel’s efforts in finding a visual equivalent to capture the paintings is hardly original or genius. He resorts to layering on sound and blurred lenses as if they were impasto sworls, so that dialogue often repeats itself (you’ll think the projectionist’s made a cock-up a few times) and the bottom of the frame is smeared. It’s all a bit obvious. He also lathers on the music, a tumble of strings and clunking chords that I found most irritating.