A Brief History of Van Gogh Films

A Brief History of Van Gogh Films

By Dani Williams

Of all the films that have portrayed the life of Vincent Van Gogh, four of them are more notable than others. Starting in chronological order with Lust for Life, an American biographical film released in 1956. This film was based on the  1934 novel by the same title, written by Irving Stone, and later adapted into film by Norman Corwin. The project was directed by Vincente Minnelli, produced by John Houseman and starred Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh and James Donald as Theo Van Gogh. It was shot on location in France, Belgium and the Netherlands and the production process required the skills of American art teacher, Robert Parker, to create replicas of two-hundred of Van Gogh’s work using oil and canvas. In order to prepare for this daunting role, Douglas began painting crows. According to Anne, (Douglas’s wife), he would often return home from shooting still in character and remained so until his role as Van Gogh ended.

Following Lust for Life is the 1990 film Vincent and Theo, a biographical drama about the relationship of the two brothers. Directed by Robert Altman, starring Tim Roth as Vincent and Paul Rhys as Theo. The film was originally created for television as a four-hour mini-series, but a 138 minute theatrical version was later also released. Critic Gary Giddins notes “most of the film (and this is strictly true for the first hour) alternates episodes from Vincent’s life with those from Theo’s… there isn’t much serenity in either of their lives, and perhaps the most disturbing element of Vincent and Theo is the reluctance to extend any help to them…” Reviewers also commented on the success of Tim Roth and Paul Rhys in their roles.

An unsigned review in Variety magazine noted “Tim Roth powerfully conveys Vincent’s heroic, obsessive concentration on his work and then resultant loneliness and isolation.” The year 2005 brought us a story of the twelve months Van Gogh spent in the asylum at St. Remy and his time spent in the Yellow House in Arles, titled The Eyes of Van Gogh. Written and directed by Alexander Barnett, who stars alongside Gordon Joseph Weis as Theo and Lee Godart as Paul Gaugin. The film illuminates the struggles Van Gogh endured during this period and his voluntary commitment to the asylum. Vincent entrusted himself into the care of Dr. Peyron, played by Roy Thines, who makes an attempt to understand the mind of a complicated genius. The film was shot using a subjective camera perspective, in order to observe the story through the eyes of Van Gogh.

The most recent Van Gogh film is the 2018 biographical drama At Eternity’s Gate. It was directed and co-edited by Julian Shnabel, who also wrote the original screenplay. Starring Willem Dafoe as Vincent and Rupert Friend as Theo, this film plays with the idea that Van Gogh’s death was not a suicide but may in fact have been a murder. Principal photography took place in 2017 over 38 days in various locations across France where Van Gogh resided during his final years. Schnabel comments that “This is a film about painting and a painter and their relationship to infinity. It is told by a painter. It contains what I felt were essential moments in his life. This is not the official story – it’s my version. One that I hope could make you closer to him”.  Dafoe was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for best actor. He won best actor at the 75th Venice International Film Festival and best actor in a motion picture drama at the Satellite Awards. 

Illustrations by Jeremy Lewis
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