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A different way of looking at Van Gogh. `Wild man' image is played down, his quest for beauty emphasized

By David Sterritt / March 11, 1988

New York

``Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh,'' one of the season's most unusual movies, has its American premi`ere next Wednesday at the enterprising Film Forum in Manhattan. In structure, ``Vincent'' falls between the documentary format and what Hollywood calls a ``biopic.'' In content, it's provocative in its ideas and often dazzling to watch and listen to.

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The film's narrative impulse comes from its sound track, which consists primarily of John Hurt's voice as he reads from Van Gogh's letters. The screen, meanwhile, is filled with images relating to Van Gogh's short but intense life - landscapes he loved, places he visited, canvases he painted.

Using these elements, director Paul Cox might have assembled a standard documentary, dryly spelling out the facts of Van Gogh's life. Instead he has chosen a more impressionistic approach. Perhaps this resulted from a feeling of kinship with the artist: Mr. Cox lives and works in Australia, but he was born and raised in the Netherlands, the country of Van Gogh himself. In any case, ``Vincent'' doesn't jump from one event to another like a conventional film. It employs Van Gogh's own words and pictures to evoke his personality - his emotions, his moods, the mental problems that challenged him - in a boldly subjective way.

Just as important, Cox paints a portrait of the artist that scrupulously avoids the commonly held notion of a wild man filled with insane passions and self-directed violence. The film never mentions the well-known fit of madness that led Van Gogh to mutilate his ear, and it never dwells on his mental difficulties for their own sake. Instead it focuses on his tremendous creativity and devotion to art. One doesn't leave ``Vincent'' pondering his insanity, as deep and tormenting as that surely was. One is more likely to remember a phrase from one of his letters: ``My greatest desire is to make beautiful things ... and I don't want that beauty to come from the material, but from within myself.''

Those words come from the lengthy correspondence between Van Gogh and his brother Theo, whom he obviously loved a great deal. As we listen to them, and others just as penetrating, the camera moves in closely and lovingly on Van Gogh's paintings, letting us savor their smallest details in wide-screen splendor: brushstrokes that conjure up stormy emotions, spots of color and texture that look more like glittering jewels than dabs of oil on a canvas.

The verbal dimension of the film, spoken by Hurt with quiet sensitivity, helps us understand the aspirations that went into creating these pictures. It demonstrates that Van Gogh, like any other great artist, was not ``a man possessed'' who flung down his paint in mad fits of inspiration. As his own words make clear, he was profoundly self-aware as an artist. He was an intellectual who thought deeply and seriously about his work, and how he could accomplish his aims most effectively.

``Vincent'' is not a perfect example of its self-invented genre. When it leaves Van Gogh's canvases for excursions into the world of nature, its images seem purposeless and even trite at times. Also less than convincing are scenes and tableaux that Cox has staged: views of a saloon where Van Gogh hung out, for example, and shots of an actress who silently plays the artist's common-law wife.