I think it’s kind of ironic that the one and only Vincent Van Gogh, professional artist, insane lunatic, and skilled ear-cutter, wouldn’t translate as well to screen as many would think. The problem with adapting any person into an artistic medium, is that it’s nearly impossible to translate their ideologies, without going into discussions related to cultural customs and etc. For a guy who’s known to have a wide consistency in having fritz of sporadic insanity, Vincent Van Gogh is surprisingly an almost un-adaptable figure in pop culture. When we look back, at the countless documentaries and biopics which have come out in the past few years, we eventually see a pattern of scattered mediocrity.
Let’s take a look at last year’s Loving Vincent, a film which I claimed to be “The Greatest Screen Saver Of All Time.” Although the film’s subject matter is compelling on paper, what majorly falters, is it’s execution of Van Gogh’s actions. Vincent Van Gogh is barely present in the film, being shown in a wide variety of flashbacks regarding his abusive behavior. What I find disappointing about Loving Vincent is that it never goes as far to show what Vincent’s inner desires are. Albeit his drunken lunacy, the connection between Vincent and audience is nowhere to be seen. Making matters worse, the film’s narrative structure, which mind you, starts off with a goddamn fucking letter, is generally un-compelling, due to the lack of care and pre-established arks for the mystery to work.
Recently, I saw Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate, which I had a similar problem with. While not as disappointing as Loving Vincent, At Eternity’s Gate falters in the same department. Although the film should be considered as an experimental film, how Schnabel handled Vincent’s inner desires and struggles felt at times irresponsible. His direction, while unique and undoubtedly creative, doesn’t respect Vincent’s inner turmoil, making moments of pure anguish and struggle feel simply passed off as “visually stimulating” entertainment. In general, I have no problem when a filmmaker tries something new with pre-established subject matter. However, dealing with a sensitive topic of literally playing around with a dead man’s life feels a bit careless to me. I didn’t have an emotional reaction with At Eternity’s Gate. It’s a film that’s visually beautiful and terrifically performed, but at the end of the day, it turns me off, especially when dealing with Van Gogh’s death and his general perspective on life.
At the end of the day, I think it’s unanimous that adapting such an infamous character may not be the best in terms of visual storytelling. Although I do admire the artistic approaches and takes on Van Gogh’s life in the film medium, with my favorite being Kurosawa’s vision for Dreams, it’s difficult to fully comprehend the massive influence and nature of such an unpredictable character. Sometimes it can come off as crude. Sometimes, it can come off as too simple. For now, I think Van Gogh in cinema should be put to rest. Although, I do fancy artist-focused biopics, Van Gogh is not the kind of person we should talk about right now, especially in the light of the Me Too movement and other social changes.
At Eternity’s Gate Is Now Playing In Select Cinemas