'Van Gogh: A Brush with Genius' Is Van Gogh, Heavily Bowdlerized

The IMAX film Van Gogh: A Brush with Genius delivers less than it promises.

Van Gogh: A Brush with Genius

Director: Francois Bertrand
Cast: Jacques Gamblin, Peter Knapp, Helene Seuzaret
Distributor: Image
Studio: Camera Lucida
Release Date: 2010-11

You’d think it would be easy to make an interesting film about Vincent Van Gogh. Not only is he universally recognized as one of the great artists of the 20th century, with a distinctive style which been memorialized on countless dorm room posters, mousepads and coffee mugs, but the man is well known for cutting off his own ear and presenting it to a prostitute. He also took his own life at the age of 37, creating the perfect conclusion to the popular trope of the tragic genius.

Sadly, the great Van Gogh film has yet to be made. It’s certainly not Van Gogh: A Brush with Genius, a 40-minute film originally created for IMAX theatres which aims to present a new approach to the painter, concentrating on his work rather than the more lurid aspects of his life story. It’s actually a pretty effective film as long as the subject matter is Van Gogh’s paintings, but it’s saddled with a silly voice-over narration by Jacques Gamblin (purportedly conveying Van Gogh’s feelings from beyond the grave, although the source of this “information” is never stated) and with wholly extraneous shots of the film being made (with writer Peter Knapp playing the director) and of the actress Helene Seuzaret playing the role of an archivist at the Van Gogh museum. She makes nice eye candy and provides the occasion for excerpts from Van Gogh’s letters to be read aloud, but it’s so obvious a setup as to be insulting even to a relatively undemanding audience.

Despite his protestations to the contrary, it seems that director Francois Bertrand, who is also credited as a writer, did not trust his audience to be interested in Van Gogh’s art for it own sake. That's a shame, because rather than bringing you closer to the works of Van Gogh, the fictional elements just push you away. They also take up much of the film’s running time, which could otherwise have been devoted to a more thorough examination of Van Gogh’s prodigious output (which includes over 900 paintings) and to have included more of his lesser-known works.

But back to the good news. The paintings look great (and I can only imagine how impressive they were on a 50’ screen) and the film uses several creative ways to explore and illuminate Van Gogh’s artistic style. Extreme close-ups and unusual angles reveal the thick brush strokes characteristic of his work. The film crew travels to the locations of some of the more famous works in order to create shots which reproduce the same views presented in the paintings. There’s some nifty time-lapse photography, in which the camera remains fixed on one of Van Gogh’s paintings while museum patrons come and go before it in comically rapid succession. Finally, the film recreates several of Van Gogh works line by line in a technique echoing reminiscent of that used by Henri-Georges Clouzot in his 1956 The Mystery of Picasso (except in that case what we saw was Picasso creating original works for the camera, rather than technical reproductions of existing Van Gogh works as in this film).

The stumbling block remains the voiceover and the spin it places on Van Gogh’s life. I’m guessing the target market for this film was schoolchildren, because the biographical information is heavily bowdlerized (nothing about drugs, madness is downplayed, no mention of the ear’s recipient, and nothing beyond the superficial about his relationship with Gauguin) and IMAX theatres are often housed within science centers which draw large numbers of children and their educationally-minded parents. Still, kids deserve better than this: they can spot an evasion as well as adults and it’s counterproductive to bring up an issue and then refuse to treat it honestly.

Sometimes the narrator’s script is completely over the top. What could possibly be the purpose of putting a plug for Peter Knapp into the mouth of the ghostly Vincent (“He is passionate about my painting. I like following him to the places where I used to paint.”)? Why saddle the defenseless dead with banalities such as “Sometimes the pictures came naturally to me like in a dream, but sometimes it was terribly laborious” or “Women find me more interesting now that I’ve died. I think I scared them off when I was alive.”?

The main extra included on this DVD is a 19-minute “making-of” documentary which includes some interesting behind the scenes footage as well as the usual interviews with the cast and crew. There is also a slide show set to music of Van Gogh’s art and trailers for 13 other films.


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