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Lust for Life succeeds both as a presentation of Vincent Van Gogh's life and of his paintings. Successful portrayal of any great artist merits respect, but perhaps even additional praise is due that of Van Gogh, a man of unusual interest and complexity.
The movie laudably subdues the sensationalism of Irving Stone's best seller of 1934, which is probably a safe move in an externally more art-appreciating society of 1956. Producer John Houseman and director Vincente Minnelli have taken considerable expense to record as faithfully as possible the tragic life of a talented, frightened man who, tormented by failures and epilepsy, lusted for punishment and death more than for life.
From Fogg to Moscow, Van Gogh's paintings were sought and photographed. The camera could not adequately show his thick daubs of paint, but it does capture his magnificent coloring, including the electric yellows with which he described a world he thought illuminated by the brilliant light of God and His sun. Cinemascope and Metrocolor are also superbly used to recreate the scenes of his paintings. They trace his life from the family home in Holland to Borinage coal district in Belgium, where he served as a minister, and finally to sun-swept Arles where, during one of his attacks, Van Gogh committed suicide.
Kirk Douglas is surprisingly satisfactory as Van Gogh, but there remains too much of the healthy, composed sensualist in his bearing. And he sometimes is not quite able to convey Van Gogh's frightening intensity. Anthony Quinn is excellent as Paul Gauguin, one of Van Gogh's few friends, but one-time stockbroker Gauguin was not so savage as he is shown in Lust for Life. The other acting is generally commendable, especially that of James Doland, who plays Van Gogh's brother Theo, a Paris art dealer who was the only person that thought Van Gogh a great artist during his thirty-seven-year lifetime (in which he did eight hundred paintings, but sold only two).
The only major dramatic fault is a lack of continuity between the various scenes, but this is, to some extent, unavoidable in a work of this scope. It is partly remedied by the extensive use of Van Gogh's letters to his brother. The movie does not greatly misrepresent Van Gogh, and fortunately focuses more upon the man as an artist than upon his mental aberrations. Lust for Life is a highly satisfying movie biography and art film.
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