Lust for Life (1956)

 

 

 

 

Director:    Vincent Minnelli

Starring:     Kirk Douglas (Vincent Van Gogh), Anthony Quinn (Paul Gauguin), James Donald (Theo Van Gogh), Pamela Brown (Christine), Everett Sloane (Dr. Gachet), Niall MacGinnis (Roulin), Noel Purcell (Anton Mauve), Henry Daniell (Theodorus Van Gogh), Jill Bennett (Ana Cornelia Van Gogh), Lionel Jeffries (Dr. Peyron), Eric Pohlmann  (Colbert).

Oscar:        Anthony Quinn for best supporting actor. 

Based on Irving Stone's biography of French painter Vincent Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas) and his painter friend Paul Gaugin (Anthony Quinn).

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

A number of new ministers are being approved by the Belgian Committee of the Messengers of the Faith.  Now they are going to take up the case of Vincent Van Gogh.  A committee member asks Dr. Bosman if he really thinks that this man's case is "quite hopeless"?  He is.  He says that the candidate is completely unable to speak extemporarily.  He has to read his sermons from his paper like a stumbling child.  The committee brings Vincent in.  They tell him they can't appoint him to a church because his teacher cannot approve him.  And that's that.  Vincent says nothing.  He just turns around and slowly starts walking out of the room.  Everyone leaves the room except Dr. Peters.  He asks Vincent if he thinks the committee was unfair to him? Vincent says no, but then becomes very intense and talkative saying that he will go anywhere, even to places that no one else wants to go.  He says:  "I'll do anything.  Only use me.  Use me!"

So Dr. Peters takes Vincent over to a large map and talks to him of a coal-mining region known as the Borinage.  The miners and their families lead very miserable lives there.  Vincent wants to go, so he is sent there. 

Vincent reads his sermon from his paper, although he does give an intense presentation that is not a bad one.  One of the miners walks out on his sermon, so at the finish of church, Vincent rushes over to talk to the fellow.  He asks Ducrucq what did he say that so offended him that he should walk out?  The miner says the he doesn't care for "pious bilge".  Vincent says he worked all week on the sermon and in church every word he said he believes in.   Vincent gets intense again and asks the man to help him help the people of the community.  He wants to get to know the people and says:  "Take me into your homes where you live."  Ducrucq says they only come home to sleep.  Their lives are spend 2,000 feet below the surface in the mines.  Vincent pleads with him to take him down into the mines.  The miner says he will arrange it and for Vincent to return at 4 o'clock in the morning when he goes to work.   

Vincent takes the elevator down into the mines.  Vincent is a bit scared and closes his eyes very tightly.  He sees filthy, dirty children working in the mines.  He's amazed at the hustle and bustle of the place. 

Vincent thinks about Ducrucq telling him that people who really want to help the villagers come here all the time, but they don't really help much.  Vincent starts to be of help.  He helps baby sit and bathe children.  He reads to groups of children.  He goes with the women to pick up the big pieces of coal from the slag. 

One day the whistle blows and everyone runs to the mine.  There has been an accident. Some men are already dead, while others are wounded.  Vincent throws himself into the rescue work.  Later Vincent goes to his little hut to get a blanket and some bread for one of the wounded.  He goes inside past two representatives of the Committee of the Messengers of the Faith.  They have come here on an inspection and don't like what they see.  His hut is a mess.  They ask him why has he chosen to live in the most wretched, filthy shack in the village when he receives an allowance?  Vincent says the clergy here have to suffer the way the mining families suffer.  They are shocked that his bed is nothing more than dirt and some straw.  Vincent says he gave his bed to a sick woman who really needed it.  The representatives both think that Vincent had degraded the dignity of the church.  As they criticize him more and more, Vincent tells them that the only thing he cares about is living like a true Christian.  He starts yelling at them and the two representatives immediately leave his little home.  Vincent shouts at them:  "Hypocrites!" 

Vincent's younger brother Theodore comes to the small town looking for his older brother.  He finds Vincent living in his little shack amid squalor.  Vincent wakes up and is happy to see his brother.  Theo asks him:  "Vincent, what are we going to do about you?"  He says father sent him here to check on Vincent.  Vincent has made himself a stranger to his own family by cutting himself off from them.  Vincent says that he's the same inside.  He wants to do something with his life that will count for something.  He has had so many failures in his life and this attempt at being a minister is perhaps his worst failure of all.  Vincent says he is caught in "a cage of shame and self-doubt and failure."  And he is frightened. 

Theo asks Vincent to never again cut himself off from him and the family.  He wants to be a part of Vincent's life.  Theo asks Vincent to come home and be with the family.  Theo himself is a well-known art deal in Paris, France.  Vincent agrees.

Vincent writes Theo saying he feels so much better and he is drawing again.  He goes out every day to draw and sketch scenes of beauty.   

Once again, Vincent forgets about supper with the family.  His sister has to come and scold him about not coming on time to dinner.  She mentions that cousin Kay and her little son Jan are both here today.  Sister asks Vincent to please not argue with father, especially today with Kay and Jan visiting.  Vincent go with his sister to the dining table.  He seems bowled over by the beauty of Kay.  He mentions that her husband Vos has been dead now for about a year.  His father and mother try to hush his talk about Vos, because Kay has still not gotten over his death. Vincent apologizes.  Once again, Vincent is being a little intense and Kay leaves the table.  Dad then scolds Vincent and Vincent talks back to him, saying he was just expressing his opinions. 

Mother suggests that Vincent visit cousin Anton Mauve in The Hague because he is a successful artist.  Vincent says he is not ready to show his work to cousin Mauve.  Kay returns to the table.  Vincent tells her is glad that she is here. 

Vincent writes Theo asking for more paper and drawing ink because he works day after day and the supplies are soon used up.  He also says that Kay being here this summer has brought a softening of his work. 

Vincent scares the hell out of Kay by being too pushy and fast declaring his love for her and saying he wants marriage and children.  Vincent doesn't seem to realize that he is scaring her.  She has to push him off of her.  He forces a kiss on her.  He says again he wants to marry her.  Kay grabs her son and says to Vincent:  "No.  Never."   She runs to the house. 

Vincent goes to Kay's house to see her.  Kay's parents try to talk some reason into Vincent about their daughter.  Vincent says he just wants to show Kay his love.  The guy just doesn't get it.  Vincent speaks of the pain of an unreturned love.  Kay's father calls him a weakling who whines about Kay's non-responsiveness.  Vincent says he knows more about pain than most men and can endure more pain that most.  He sticks his hand right over a lit candle and keeps it there, until Kay's father has to do something to stop this craziness.  Dad asks him has he lost his mind?  Vincent asks him:  "Do you hear me whimpering?"  Dad says Kay told him that Vincent's persistence disgusts her.  This word "disgusts" hits Vincent in the gut.  He changes his tune now and says he's sorry.  He leaves. 

Vincent goes to a tavern to have a drink.  There he meets a prostitute who is really down and out.  Vincent becomes concerned for her and gives her a drink of brandy.  She talks about suicide and Vincent tells her not to say such a terrible thing.  She says she is a laundress, but does resort to prostitution when laundry work is scarce.  He gives her a little money.  She sees his hand is hurt and she grabs it to take a look. The woman says it's a bad burn and asks the bartender for butter or oil for his hand.  The bartender says they only serve drinks, not food.  The woman tells Vincent to come with her to her place so she can take care of his bad burn. 

Vincent writes Theo about the woman and says she has been very good and kind to him and they talk about all kinds of subjects.  She herself feels very grateful not to be alone anymore. 

Vincent goes to see cousin Mauve to show him his drawings.  Mauve looks through his drawings and finds them a little clumsy, but he can see what Vincent is trying to get at.  In fact, Mauve is so impressed that he gives Vincent everything he needs to start working with oils and paints.  He even gives him some castes of a foot and a hand.  Cousin Mauve even gives him some money to help him set up. 

Back home, Vincent uses his woman Christine and her baby as models.  He feels happy about having a real home with a woman and a child.   He takes Christine to the shore and paints her until she tires and goes inside.  Christine tells Vincent that she is fed up with living on bread and coffee and never having any money.  He shouts at her to stop nagging him.   

Vincent gets a telegram form his mother that his father has suffered a stroke and she wants Vincent to return home immediately.  Christine comes back from being away for a couple of days.  She admits that she has resorted to prostitution again for some money and some jokes for a change.  She accompanies him to the train station where she tells him that she won't be here when he gets back.  Christine at least tells him that it isn't his fault because he has been very good to her and her child. 

At home Theo tells Vincent to come and live with him in Paris.  He says:  "You're not the only one who's lonely."  Vincent says he feels he has to stay here at home where he knows the people and the land and where his roots are. 

Vincent is doing well with his paintings, but the little town doesn't approve of his wild ways and the way he dresses and looks.  He does a lot of paintings of the weavers at their looms.  He uses villagers as models.  His sister comes in to talk with him.  Willemien says the way he dresses and acts stirs up gossip and makes it hard on the family.  People are starting to avoid the entire family.  Vincent tells her he will finish the painting he is working on and then leave.  He philosophizes that maybe it is time to move on. 

Paris.  A new school of painting called impressionism creates some controversy in the field of painting.  While some rail against the anarchism of  the school, Vincent is awe-struck.  He looks at the works of Cezanne, Signac, Pissarro, Gauguin, Renoir and Monet.  When he talks to Theo he is filled with enthusiasm for the art.  Theo takes Vincent to see Pissarro.  Vincent now starts producing paintings that take in some of the insights given by impressionist painters. Vincent visits with the painter Seurat for more insight. 

Vincent asks Theo if he could sell one of the new paintings he has done since seeing the work of the impressionists?  Theo says it's hard selling any of the works of the new movement.  His employer does not allow much space at all for any of the impressionist paintings.  In his intense way, Vincent tells Theo to leave his job and set up in business for himself.  This angers Theo a bit and he tells Vincent not to tell him how to live his life.  And furthermore, Vincent has not let him have a good night's rest for six months now.  And still another thing, Vincent insults Theo's guests and runs them off.  Vincent argues with Theo until the brother has to give in and say good night to him. 

Vincent goes into an art shop and there finds a man criticizing the new movement in art.  He says the new painters are so pleased with their little tricks that they have forgotten how to paint.  Vincent asks the shop owner who is that man and finds out it is Paul Gauguin.  One of the men in the shop grabs one of the works Van Gogh has with him and asks Gauguin if he likes it?  Vincent gets angry, grabs the painting from the man and pushes him backwards. Gauguin looks the painting over and says it's good, it's honest.  The other men get riled up at this and Gauguin starts to leave asking "my friend" Vincent if he would like to join him? 

Gauguin talks to Vincent of the beautiful lighting on Martinique.  He also says that he doesn't like the city.  He feels stifled by it.  Instead, Gauguin would like to paint in Brittany.  He has a little place there. 

Theo brings his boss to his apartment.  When Theo turns the light on he is amazed.  Vincent has cleaned up the place and hung many of his paintings on Theo's walls.  Theo reads a note left by Vincent saying he is headed south to Arles, Provence to paint nature "under a clearer sky".  The boss says that Vincent's work has affected Theo too much, that he is too emotional about his brother.  Theo admits that his brother his "crude, quarrelsome and excitable", but he is a gifted, tender and passionate man.   

Vincent rents a place at 8 francs per week.  It is spring time and the cherry trees are blossoming all over the place.  Soon Vincent is outside again painting the beauty that he sees.  And soon Vincent has his place and the hallway all full of his paintings.  The landlord doesn't like it and tells him so.  Vincent won't budge, but he does pack up his stuff and tries to carry most of it all at one time.  A fellow who dresses like a sea captain gives Vincent a helping hand with carrying the paintings.  The guy tells Vincent he will try to get him a whole house to use.  The bearded man does the talking and soon enough Vincent has the house.  Inside it's a mess, but Vincent has lived in worst places. 

The stranger Roulin continues to help Vincent.  He and some friends bring him a mattress, chairs and a bed.  The place starts looking pretty good and Vincent paints how his room looks on canvas.  He dreams of making the place into a colony of painters.  Maybe Gauguin will come and live with him.  He absolutely loves the countryside here and works at a frenetic pace forgetting about time and people.   As fall heads toward winter the winds are too much for Vincent and he has to remain inside to paint.  He doesn't like it at all.  When the voices inside his head get to be too much for him, he distracts himself with drink at a tavern.  He's afraid that he is going to ruin his nerves and there may be a crisis.  And yet he can't stop himself.  He even puts candles on his wide brimmed hat so that he can paint at night outside. 

One night Vincent falls to sleep in the tavern.  The next morning Roulin finds him still in the tavern.  Roulin is a mail carrier and he brings a letter from Theo to Vincent.  Vincent leaves the tavern with Roulin and tells the mail carrier that his brother is getting married to a Dutch girl and will be leaving his old place. 

Theo and his wife together try to figure out a way to make Vincent less alone.  They think it might be a good idea to get Gauguin to go down and stay with Vincent in his house.  Theo is even willing to pay the man's debts in Brittany and to give Gauguin enough money to travel to Arles and a sufficient amount for some spending money.  One day Gauguin shows up at Vincent's house.  He goes inside and shouts for Vincent.  With his typical over-enthusiasm, Vincent goes over the top with his enthusiasm at Gauguin's arrival.  He has fixed up a room for Gauguin and even painted portraits of beautiful flowers for his room. 

Gauguin is amazed at how many paintings Vincent has in the house.  What Gauguin does not like is the mess in which Van Gogh lives.  He has paints on the chair and strewn on the table.  And Vincent is a terrible cook.  Gauguin will do all the cooking from now on.  The house guest now starts making order where there was chaos.  Vincent talks to Gauguin of making a colony of painters here, but Paul seems to hate most of the painters Vincent mentions.  Gauguin now tells Vincent he has has been creating a new style in which he can paint his emotions and moods without regard for "concrete reality".  Vincent, of course, loves nature, while Gauguin says he disregards it.  They get into a big argument about the best style.  (Apparently, they don't see that two artists can have different styles and both can be beautiful.  One does not have to trump the other.)  They are soon vociferously insulting each others' painting style.  Vincent really shouts at Gauguin, who deliberately chooses to calm the situation by saying maybe Vincent is right.  Vincent apologizes to Gauguin. 

The lifestyles and philosophies of both men clash with each other.  And Vincent seems to drone on and on, which irritates Paul.  For instance, Paul says he doesn't want to be loved and love is what Vincent has been searching for.  Paul wants some excitement in his life.  He wants a woman.  In town Gauguin gets his excitement when a fight spills out onto the street.  When a third man tries to help one of the fighters, Gauguin knocks him down.  Then he turns his attention to the fellow who is losing the fight.  Gauguin tells the losing fighter:  "Wait a minute, wait a minute!  You're tired."  He pushes the guy down to sit on the street and finishes off the would-be victor.   Following the fight, Paul feels elated.  They go into the tavern. 

Inside the tavern, Vincent introduces Paul to his working girl friend Rachel.  Paul says he is attracted to violence, whereas Vincent says he detests violence.  He says he is afraid of violence because he has too much of it inside him.  Gauguin says that's why he lets the anger out in activities like fighting. 

The men still argue vehemently about painting.  Vincent writes Theo that sometimes they argue so much that his brain gets tired.  Gauguin follows Vincent outside one day to paint, but the wind is so strong that Paul says he is going back inside.  Arguing with Vincent, his dissatisfaction with things starts showing in his many complaints.  He shouts:  "I'm sick of this whole miserable countryside .  And that house, too."  Vincent tells Paul if he is truly that unhappy maybe he should leave.  Paul says he doesn't have the money.  

At night, Vincent finally comes into the house.  Paul is still angry and doesn't want to listen to Vincent's peace offerings.  Vincent drones on and on until Paul shouts:  "Why don't you shut up?!  If you have to slobber, don't do it over me!"  He hates emotionalism and that's what Vincent is all about.  Paul is so angry that he hits below the belt:  "I didn't have a brother to support me."  This makes Vincent mad and he throws a glass at Paul.  The glass breaks against the opposite wall. 

Now the big man is furious and he says between clenched teeth:  "Don't ever do that again."  He leaves the house saying he has to get out of the house before one of them gets killed.  Vincent begs him to stay, but it's no use.  Paul leaves and walks toward the tavern.  He hears someone coming fast behind him.  He stops and looks back. And here comes Vincent the mad-man with a shaving razor in his hand.  Gauguin just stands there waiting to see what Vincent will do.  Vincent calms down a little and starts walking back home.  There, in a fit of madness, he cuts off his right ear with the shaving razor. 

When Paul returns to the house, he finds the police there.  They tell him that someone cut off the man's ear.  Gauguin goes into the room but Vincent is sleeping.  The police ask Gauguin a lot of questions.  The doctor arrives and tells everyone that "it is a wonder he didn't bleed to death."  Paul tells the police officer that Vincent is mentally unbalanced and says he can ask anyone in the neighborhood about that.   Gauguin figures it would be best if he left before Vincent awakened, so he wouldn't be reminded of their argument.   He says he will write his brother and tell him what happened. 

All the townspeople gather below the second floor window where Vincent is recuperating.  Roulin tries to shoo them away, but they just laugh at him.  All the shouting awakens Vincent.  A young boy climbs up to the window and bangs on it.  Vincent shouts down to the people to leave him alone, but they just laugh even more.  He starts to return to his bed but falls unconscious.

Theo comes to visit Vincent in the hospital.  Vincent tells him:  "I want to have myself committed."  He says he has to go because another attack like he had could leave him useless.  He refuses to go to Paris.  Vincent says he's a danger to himself and other people.  He begs his brother to find a place for him.    Theo reluctantly agrees to it.

At the railway station Vincent gives Roulin a big hug and then gets on the train with his brother.  They go to the asylum and Vincent goes in willingly.  The analyst there says he's doing pretty good.  He says that half of the fear of his attacks will go away once he realizes that these attacks are a result of the illness (be it congenital or acquired) and nothing else.  He says Vincent just needs rest and peace and quiet,. The doctor writes to Theo that they will have Vincent under close observation.   The brother is suffering from chronic inertia with bouts of extreme terror.  He doesn't do any painting at all.  After awhile, he asks to have his paintings and his painting equipment brought to his room.  The items are brought to his room.  Vincent finally gets up and really looks out of the window in his room. 

Vincent paints a picture of the fields outside his window.  One of the nuns really likes his paintings and asks him questions about his work.  The doctor says painting seems good for Vincent, as long as he doesn't overwork himself, which led to his previous mental breakdown.   He starts turning out a lot of paintings.   One day while painting, he has a terror attack and a patient runs for help for him.  The analyst writes Theo to say that it was the worst attack sinceVincent has been at the asylum.  And now Vincent says he wants to leave the institution. 

Vincent arrives at the home of Theo and his wife.  He tell his sister-in-law that she looks pretty, as he thought she would.   Theo wants to celebrate the sale of his first painting to a woman painter from Brussels. 

Theo puts Vincent in contact with Dr. Gachet.  He tells Vincent to just forget his seizures and tell himself that he is finished with them.  The doctor knows a lot of the new painters and has many paintings from them on his walls.  Vincent writes Theo that Dr. Gachet is a very pleasant man, but he is afraid that the doctor won't be able to help him much.  He speaks of the blind leading the blind. 

Vincent paints the portrait of Dr. Gachet as he rests his head on his right hand at a table.  There is a children's fair in town and the noise starts to really bother Vincent.  He has another seizure. Vincent has to get out of there.  He starts painting a field full of crows.  He starts to become frenetic, saying:  "It's impossible."  He goes over to a tree and writes a note:  "I am desperate.  I can foresee absolutely nothing. I see no way out."  He takes a pistol from his pocket and shoots himself. 

Theo comes to see his brother in bed.  Vincent asks if the baby is o.k. and adds:  "I hope he has a quieter soul than mine, cause mine's sinking.  Sinking.."  he takes a breath and says:  "Theo.  Theo.  I'd like to go home."  He drops his pipe on his chest and dies.  Theo cries and says:  "My own brother.  My poor, poor brother."

 

 

Very enjoyable movie.  Van Gogh was a great painter, but the unfortunate man was plagued by mental illness.  He had bad seizures in which he could hurt himself or others.  Thank goodness he had a brother who was like a saint to Vincent.  It was he that provided the money for his brother to keep painting.    Vincent died early, at age 37.   Kirk Douglas does a masterful job of portraying the intensity of Vincent's suffering on his own face.  And, of course, Anthony Quinn (of Irish and Mexican origin) was so good as Paul Gauguin that he got an Oscar for his performance.  Vincent and Paul were polar opposites and that caused a lot of strife between the two painters.  Vincent's great intensity scared off a lot of people from him, even members of his own family (except for Theo).  He didn't realize that he was just coming on too strong for most people.  Ah, but what a painter!

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

 


Historical Background:

Vincent Van Gogh

 

1852 --  Vincent's brother Vincent Willem was born, but died the very same day. 

1853  --  Vincent Willem van Gogh was born in Zundert in a province of the Netherlands. His father was a Protestant minister. 

As a child, Vincent was serious, silent and thoughtful.

1857  --  another brother Theodorus (Theo) was born.  Vincent's other siblings were: brother Cor and three sisters, Elisabeth, Anna and Wil.

1861-1862  --  at age 8, van Gogh went to the Village School in Zundert.

1863-1864  -- Vincent was educated at home.

1864 (October) - 1865  -- he went to boarding school, Jan Provily in Zevenbergen.  

1866 (September)  --  Vincent went to the "Rijks HBS Koning Willem II" in Tilburg. 

 

1869  --  at age 16, he took a position with art dealer, Goupil and Co. in the Hague. 

1872 (August)  -- Vincent began a long correspondence with brother Theo, who would end up supporting Vincent for the rest of his life. 

1873 (June)  --  Goupil transferred Vincent to London.

1873  -- after four years, Vincent was dismissed from the London office. 

1875  --  Goupil transferred Vincent to Paris.  He was then transferred to London again.

1876 (March)  --  Goupil dismissed him for lack of motivation.

1876  --  Vincent had been developing an interest in religion, the profession of his father, and wanted to teach about the Bible.  He was offered a job in a boarding school in Ramsgate, London, while living and teaching at Isleworth. 

1880  --  it was brother Theo who suggested Vincent take up painting full-time.  He took a few painting lessons from Anton Mauve in the Hague.

1881  --  he moved in with his parents in Etten. 

He fell in love with his widowed cousin Ke Vos, but she rejected him.  He then turned to life with prostitute Sien Hoornik and her children.  He thought about marrying the woman, but his father and Theo would not hear of it.  Vincent and Sien separated.

His uncle Cornelis gave him a commission to make a series of 12 views of The Hague.

Vincent decided to paint rural scenes of peasants and farms (influenced by Jean-Francois Millet). 

1885  -- living with his parents again, he painted The Potato Eaters.  Vincent complained to his brother that Theo was not working hard enough to sell his paintings.  Theo urged his brother to paint in the now popular Impressionist style.

1885-1886 (winter)  --  Van Gogh attended the art academy of Antwerp but was soon dismissed by his professor.  During this time, Vincent began to be influenced by Japanese art. 

1886 (spring)  --  Vincent and Theo moved in together in Paris.  In Paris he met a lot of influential painters:  Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Emile Bernard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gauguin.  He now came under the influence of impressionism and pointillism, although van Gogh is known as a post-impressionist.  He liked to use complementary colors, especially blue and orange.  

1888 (February) --  Van Gogh went to Arles, France.  He painted a great many yellow sunflower paintings at this time.  He and Paul Gauguin shared some mutual ideas about painting.  Their relationship, however, ended in a quarrel.  Vincent was so upset by the break-up that he began to have a breakdown. 

1888 (December 23)  --  Vincent cut off the lower part of his left ear and asked a prostitute to save it for him.  

1889 (May)  --  Van Gogh suffered from mental problems and he himself asked to be admitted to a psychiatric center. Here he used swirls in his paintings, such as in his most famous painting, The Starry Night. Meanwhile, Theo had married.

1890 (May)  --  Vincent left the clinic.  He created his only etching, of his local physician Paul Gachet. 

1890 --  at the age of 37, Vincent fell into a deep depression and shot himself in the chest.  He died two days later with Theo at his side.  Poor Theo died six months later and was buried next to his beloved brother. 

 

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