LUST FOR LIFE,
When listening to American actors do poor attempts at foreign accents, one sometimes wishes they wouldn’t bother and just rely on their own pronunciations instead. What actor should have to worry about whether he sounds convincing on top of thinking about conveying feeling, passion, and emotion? In
(1956), we never have to hear Kirk Douglas sport a fake Dutch accent. The film, directed by Vincente Minnelli, is a biography of Post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh (Douglas), adapted from Irving Stone’s 1934 novel into an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Norman Corwin. It isn’t true to life in all of its biographical details, but its tone captures the spirit of optimism, prosperity, and artistic bohemianism that defined the Belle Époque. The film is screening as part of Violet Crown’s Essential Cinema series.
The story starts with van Gogh failing his entrance exams to study theology at the University of Amsterdam but managing to secure a post as minister to a Belgian mining community soon after. Choosing to live in squalor despite a stipend, van Gogh struggles to understand the condition of his less-fortunate congregants. He tries to live a spiritual life devoid of possessions, except for his copious drawings of village life and townsfolk and an old straw mat to sleep on. Although a mining tragedy occurs in these early scenes, it serves as a dramatic device, whereas incidents such as van Gogh’s dismissal from his post by church officials who felt his impoverished lifestyle demeaned it, are based in fact. Irving relied on van Gogh’s correspondences with his brother Theo when he wrote the novel.
Van Gogh has the first of several crises after the mine collapse, when he questions his faith and is convinced by Theo (played sympathetically by James Donald), to return home to his parents while he figures things out. Van Gogh argues with his father, a minister, while at the family dinner table, causing disruption when he bluntly voices the passionate dictates of his heart, which are at odds with the wishes of his staid and sanctimonious father. He falls hard for his recently widowed cousin Kay ( Jeanette Sterke), who comes for a visit. Despite an apparent budding romance between them, she spurns his advances. When Kay retreats to her family’s home, refusing to answer his letters, he shows up and is politely told that he disgusts her. His disappointment registers and so does his shock. The episode further sets the tone — that of the misunderstood genius — for the rest of the film. Although Kay is never mentioned again, one senses that his unrequited attachment is, in part, at the root of his angst.
Douglas, who once described his life as a B-movie script, is adept at playing hard men and heroic characters who act with bravura, but his performance here is nuanced as well as frenzied and impassioned. Van Gogh is a challenging role, and he rises to the