The life of the tortured Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh, from his failed attempts at missionary work in Belgium, his miserable home life, his alienation of sponsor Anton Mauve and his on-off friendship with impressionist Paul Gaugin. In between there are some astonishing paintings.
Although perhaps best known for his grandiloquent musicals such as An American In Paris, Gigi and The Band Wagon, the majority of Vincente Minnelli’s films were straight dramas and this exquisitely rendered biopic of Van Gogh’s life is amongst his finest.
Taking some nine years to reach the screen after it was first optioned by MGM, Minnelli’s adaptation of Irving Stone’s hugely popular “fictionalised biography” pulls off the nifty trick of being both an essay of a tragic life and a celebration of wayward genius. Minnelli is helped hugely in this respect by Kirk Douglas’ towering performance. While the actor’s dedication saw him learn to paint under the supervision of a French artist, what really sells the performance is Douglas’ sensitivity and commitment to the extremes of the artist’s emotions. It is a fiery, passionate piece of acting. Yet, in one of those all too familiar Oscar blunders, Anthony Quinn’s supporting turn as Gaugin, the equally temperamental artist who attempts to befriend Van Gogh, that walked away with the bald statuette, remarkable for a turn that only lasts 8 minutes.
Yet unlike many modern biopics like Ray or Walk The Line, Lust For Life is not a film driven by performance alone. Minnelli uses the full extent of his filmmaking palette to replicate the master’s vision on film — his crew also shot around 200 Van Gogh originals under special lighting conditions as not to damage them — employing various lighting techniques and film stocks to appropriate the soft subtle tones of Van Gogh;s artistry, It is a shame that a lot of this good work is undone by the studios decision, enforced on Minnelli, to shoot the film in widescreen — a format that is completely at odds with the shape of Van Gogh’s paintings
Despite half-a-dozen recent attempts to "correct" this biopic, Minnelli's agonised portrait of the life of Vincent Van Gogh remains the definitive movie word on the subject.