This film depicts the last years of Vincent Van Gogh’s life, after his slight accumulance of a reputation in the Parisian city center. Willem Dafoe comes alive on screen, fully immersed in his role of the tortured artist. The devastating degradation of Van Gogh’s mental health is explored through intimate, distorted camera work. The off-kilter angles and shaky movement put the viewer in Van Gogh’s shoes, advancing in obscurity as his own dissociations progress. The scenery of the film is resplendent and the distortions caused by the sun seeping into Vincent’s perspective allows the viewer to truly see these landscapes through Van Gogh’s adoring eyes; illustrious color burning under a setting sun.
In viewing Vincent’s life though our modern lens of awareness surrounding mental health, it becomes poignantly apparent just how far we still have to go. The film reframes the infamous ear incident, demonstrating the painful, reactionary and self-destructive symptoms of battling serious mental ailments. This film forces us beyond the instinctive reaction of writing Vincent off as “crazy” and encourages us to explore this chord of self-imposed violence within ourselves.
Vincent speaking to his doctor after the incident:
” I believe I have a menacing spirit around me. An invisible being. I feel it, I don’t see it. He speaks to me and threatens me. And all he wants to do is plunge a knife into my heart. I saw him and I tried to cut him out of myself… There’s something inside me. I don’t know what it is. What I see, nobody else sees and sometimes it frightens me. I think I’m losing my mind. But then I say to myself, “I’ll show what I see to my human brothers who can’t see it.” It’s a privilege. I can give them hope and consolation. “
Vincent is clearly aware of what is happening to him while heartbreakingly powerless against it. His reputation is quickly destroyed amongst his former friends and colleges; a petition is enacted to keep him out of Arles where he previously lived. He sinks into a desperate loneliness, grasping at straws that abandon him when the true depth of his mind is revealed. His mood pendulums between rage and ecstasy as he becomes a prisoner to his own perspective. From someplace stable within him, he watches in agony as his external identity withers while he consorts his efforts into battling his demons and searching for subjects to paint.
His pain is palpable as confusion encroaches and subsequent darkness consumes his beaten and battered mind. The feeling is immediately recognizable, invoking overwhelming pity amongst viewers. The devastating irony of his life is the recognition he received years after he died in misery. His art was often described by early critics as “ghastly” and “horrifying,” an abandonment of classical style and form in favor of color and feeling. In modern times, his art is now prized as rebellious, revolutionary; foraging the way for future artists. This speaks to all of our standards of what is normal and acceptable. It is important to use this film and Vincent’s life as modern day encouragement to challenge our expectations and our belief structures of “right” and “good.” It is an important reminder to lead with empathy and to be mindful of prescriptive condemnation of the “other.” We are all born with a gift to share, even if it is too early to be understood.
Albert Aurier voice over from the film:
“Beneath skies that sometimes dazzle like faceted sapphires or turquoises, beneath the incessant and formidable streaming of every conceivable effect of light. In heavy, flaming, burning atmospheres, there is the disquieting and disturbing display of strange nature that is at once entirely realistic, and yet almost supernatural. Often excessive nature where everything, beings and things, shadows and lights, forms and colors, rears and rises up with a raging will to howl its own essential song in the most intense and fiercely high-pitched timbre. It is matter and all of nature, frenetically contorted. It is form becoming nightmare, color becoming flames, light turning into conflagration, life into burning fever. Such is the impression left upon the retina when it first views the strange, intense and feverish work of Vincent van Gogh. How far are we, are we not, from the beautiful, great tradition of art? Never has there been a painter whose art appeals so directly to the senses, from the indefinable aroma of his sincerity to flesh and the matter of his paint. This robust and true artist, Vincent van Gogh, towers above the rest.”
Image sourced from Pinterest, Artist: Van Gogh