By Christopher Neilan.
Pialat is not celebrated in the US like Truffaut, nor adored in critical circles like Godard and Melville. He’s a palme d’or winner who emerged in the post-new wave environment – Truffaut, in fact, produced his first feature in 1968 – but one whose rigidly realist, langorously structured, unsentimental minimalist narratives never truly captured the attention of English speaking audiences. He was irascible, opinionated, and revelled in making his young actresses take their clothes off (for young, read: still at school). He typically represents sex as both romantic and promiscuous, going against the Hollywood mode of presenting promiscuity as sin (except in the palme d’or winning Sous le soleil de Satan , his most atypical and, in my opinion, his weakest film, in which promiscuity and sin are explicitly linked, contradicting his previous works). He focuses far too often on aggressive older male characters who physically dominate their younger women, belying concerning gender politics. He started the career of Sandrine Bonnaire (by making her take her clothes off, while she was still at school).
Van Gogh was his penultimate film, shot in 1991 when Pialat was 66. Starring musician Jacques Dutronc as Van Gogh, who won a Cesar award for the performance, the film is not the biopic one might expect, carrying little focus on Van Gogh’s work per se, instead focusing on his deteriorating mental state, his emotional isolation, his difficult interpersonal relationships, and, to a great degree, an authentic recreation of the time period. Set in the weeks leading up to Van Gogh’s death in Auvers-sur-Oise in 1890, the plot is meandering at best. The key interest of the film is authenticity and a realist representation of character and behaviour of the time, anchored around the central figure of Van Gogh and his mental deterioration, but often veering away to show quotidian interactions between fringe characters, which damage the plot but increase authenticity in a manner more typical (and more suitable) to the novel than to the cinema. There are three central relationships: between Van Gogh and Dr Gachet, the art lover who examines Van Gogh and houses him in Auvers-sur-Oise (a year before the film’s release, Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet sold for $82.5m at an auction house in New York, which was the highest price ever paid for a painting at auction at the time); between Van Gogh and Marguerite, Gachet’s young daughter, with whom Van Gogh enjoys a fatalistic gallows romance; and between Van Gogh and his brother, Theo, a successful art dealer who has made money promoting the works of Renoir and Monet but who refuses to push his brother’s work. Vincent’s paintings sit gathering dust around Theo’s apartment, whilst Vincent himself, released from a period in a sanitorium, becomes more withdrawn, more bitter, and more erratic, leading finally to his death from a suspected but unverified suicide.
Most of Pialat’s body of work balances impressive elements with frustrating ones, and Van Gogh is no exception. This is not to say that the impressive elements in the film are not many nor impactful. The manner of Pialat’s representation of time and place is truly mercurial. Time and again he foregoes classic story structuring to focus on establishment and texture, and the result is an almost magical transportation to the late nineteenth century. The mise-en-scéne, too, is faultless, the camerawork subtle and engrossing. Dutronc is engaging and complex as the troubled painter struggling with personal demons, poverty and a lack of recognition. And perhaps most impressive of all is the way Pialat refuses to focus on the famous imagery Van Gogh produced. We are gently reminded throughout that Van Gogh’s posthumous fame is not our focus, that this fame impacted not upon the man himself. Instead, we are offered what one feels must be a truthful window onto the life the man lived: a sad and quiet life, pained and difficult, and ultimately lonely, in which his paintings, destined for fame and greatness, are carried roughly under the arm, or leant against a wall in the corner of the camera’s frame, mute witnesses to their creator’s sad and fast-ending existence.
Authenticity, then, is the common factor in Pialat’s impressive traits. Too often, however, Pialat’s devotion to authenticity comes at the expense of undisciplined storytelling. Pialat is, at root, an observational dramatist, and this is both his most interesting trait and his central flaw. He is not a skilled designer of narratives nor of scenes. Like Rohmer and Godard, his lack of interest in story events has typically been seen as an artistic choice, an obtuse refusal to conform to Hollywood-centric story tropes, and not seen for what it is – a failure of craft. However, in the case of Pialat, his attempts to avoid cliché with his eventless narratives lead him wanderingly, meanderingly into a cinematic niche of honesty, simplicity, realism and naturalism that can be both refreshing and rewarding – as well as boring and frustrating. It’s principally the lengthy running time of Van Gogh (158mins) which undermines it’s simple and often elegant representation of the great painter’s last days.
Then again, if his snail-paced, pre-death drama bores you, he wouldn’t care. As he told the crowd of the Palais du Festival, who booed him as he received the 1987 palme d’or for his equally snail-paced Sous le soleil de Satan: “If you don’t like me, well I don’t like you either”. And that, at least, is a quality in a dramatist we can all admire.
Christopher Neilan is an author, screenwriter and critic. His first novel Abattoir Jack is available from Punked Books.
Van Gogh was released on DVD and Blu-ray by Eureka! Entertainment as part of their ‘Masters of Cinema’ series. Extras include a new restoration of the film, appearing in 1080p and on Blu-ray; Van Gogh (1965), a short early documentary about the painter by Pialat; a 10-minute interview with Pialat from 1991; a 50-minute interview with Pialat from 1992; and finally a 56-page booklet containing a new essay by critic Sabrina Marques, Jean-Luc Godard’s letter to Pialat after seeing the film, and Godard’s tribute to Pialat upon the director’s passing in 2003.