Having just viewed some of the “real thing” in the National Gallery, it seemed the ideal time to venture into director/writer/actor Alexander Barnett’s vision of the famed artist’s last desperate year on the planet. With Sunflowers (1888) still fresh in memory, The Eyes of Van Gogh was a frequently frustrating film. When would the glorious art fill the screen with colour and our hearts with joy and amazement? Films about musicians, actors or dancers often have archival footage to remind all of their subjects’ greatness. Isaac Julien’s telling documentary, Derek, was playing in the Serpentine Gallery (seen, coincidentally, on the same day as the visit to the mighty Trafalgar Square gallery) and offered a marvellous balance of the brilliant director’s work and some remarkable insights into his last days on earth.
The lack of art (more of van Gogh’s work, less of his innumerable diatribes—“They don’t understand it [van Gogh’s work]. It means nothing to them.”—and walks through the woods—perhaps an impossible task given the static nature of a framed canvas), so many slow-moving scenes and an overabundance of talking heads (the first significant pan came after the time was 25% over!) drags down the pace of the artist’s descent into madness that the film loses all chance of making a dramatic statement about one of the world’s most storied painters.
Barnett seems content to stage the production as if it was in the confines of a theatre rather than the wide-open reaches of cinema. The frequent use of voice-over letters to tell rather than show the important background information from his brother/art dealer Theo (Keith Perry) amounts, again, to too many words.
The appearance of Paul Gauguin (Lee Godart) brightens the texture and tone considerably, but with nary a plump, nubile model in sight and artist-to-artist arguments that sound overly scripted, he’s not really missed once he’s had enough and walks out (perhaps inspiring others to do likewise).
Roy Thinnes takes on the role of Dr. Peron—chief shrink at the St. Remy asylum where Van Gogh is housed. The white coat jailer offers no treatment (pharmaceuticals not being in the forefront of smile-be-happy prescriptions in those days) and encourages his patient to adopt a quiet dull life as the only means of survival. Fortunately for the world, that advice is ignored and Van Gogh paints up a storm, stimulating his overwrought mind (nightmares of attending the grave of his other brother Vincent who died in infancy only to have his cruel parents give the artist the same name and “replacement” status) and causing psychotic attacks that, finally, are silenced by a bullet.
During these hallucinations, van Gogh’s long-dead father appears, taunting his son’s vocation and wanting to know when he’ll make his living from it; brother Theo lamely tries to explain why he doesn’t show the paintings that he’s paid for by advancing cash during their creation. “I’ll pay back every penny,” vows the artistic genius. “When?” chides his unfeeling father. “I feel I’m well enough to resume painting,” pleads the paintter to his wait-and-see doctor. The replies to both the question and the plea are identical: “soon, very soon,” yielding a dramatic moment, rich with irony that shows the promise of what might have been. JWR