I know it’s an old art-school cliche, but Vincent van Gogh is my favorite artist. The Night Cafe fascinated me and helped me understand a setting for madness while The Starry Night is a painting that helps me see light and beauty in darkness and meaning to chaos. My old poster of it I bought off a sidewalk sale in college has been moved from one apartment to the next and into my home office, bringing me peace and wonder still. Van Gogh’s life is just as fascinating as his work and as my old art history professor advised me seven years ago, I have finally watched Lust for Life. Better late than never, Professor.
Throughout the film we watch Vincent’s (Kirk Douglas) life build, crumble and rebuild again all while his work becomes more and more important and his talent grows. We are first introduced to an underachieving young man who wants to bring people the word of God, so naturally he wants to become a preacher. His time preaching in a coal mining town gives him a new perspective and appreciation of laborers who work hard for the little food they have. At the request of his family, he returns home and works tirelessly at his budding art, but having his love rejected sends him into Paris and into a depression. Eventually, he begins finding other artists, the Impressionists, who he learns from and works with. As hard as Vincent works, his art is never a success and whether it’s women, drink or depression, he always has demons tormenting him.
Kirk Douglas’ portrayal of Vincent van Gogh earned him an Oscar nomination. He brings out all the life loving attributes of Vincent just as strongly as his despair and torments. Vincent’s first heartbreak is so powerful, we can tell how hurt he is just by looking at his eyes, even before he puts his hand over the fire. Watching Douglas immerse himself in van Gogh’s painting helps bring his work a new level of life as we see what goes on as he creates his art.
One of my favorite things about Lust for Life is the Oscar nominated set design. Many times, the sets are inspired by, if not taken from Vincent’s paintings. We watch Vincent and Paul Gauguin (Anthony Quinn) have a drink at the Cafe Terrace at Night. Light reflects off the water like Starry Night Over the Rhone. We see his fields, the laborers working in them, his Potato Eaters and even get to know Dr. Gachet (Everett Sloane) a little more before his portrait is made. My jaw dropped at how perfectly recreated The Night Cafe and seeing Vincent in it with the perfect perspective where he would order two coffees and three absinthe was a treat for this art geek.
In all, Lust for Life earned four Oscar nominations and won one of them. Anthony Quinn won best supporting actor for his portrayal of Paul Gauguin. He’s a good friend and strong influence to Vincent, but their relationship is strained. While Vincent’s mood can go from extreme depression to elation easily, Gauguin’s is more placid and controlled, but he can have a temper. While he can help keep some of Vincent’s mania in order, he cannot always stay by Vincent’s side. It might have been their big fight that sealed Quinn’s win. The film’s fourth nomination was for best adapted screenplay.
While I find it perfectly understandable that some people just don’t care for bio-pics, I would have to recommend anyone interested in art and artists check out Lust for Life. It’s such a well done film that seems to take all it’s inspirations from van Gogh’s work, be it letters, paintings or how he kept his home.
“If I’m to be anything as a painter I’ve got to break through that iron wall between what I feel and what I express.”
Excellent review, I will check this out after reading your outstanding post.
Wonderful! I hope you enjoy it.
I was about 12 years old when I first saw this film at a small theater in downtown Philly. I was so struck by it that I purchased the souvenir prints of the artist’s paintings at the theater and was immediately a humongous fan of Van Gogh. Your recognition of the Art Direction in the film is right on target, and Douglas’s performance is so powerful that it is still his best as far as I’m concerned. This was yet another of those great 1956 films…and I am so grateful because I credit this film with turning a young kid on to Van Gogh and Impressionist art. In that sense, this movie really altered my life and my perceptions. And that’s really the best tribute I can give to a film!
Wow Ken, what a great experience. I’m curious what prints you picked out that day. Thanks for sharing!
Actually. I still have them…A Sunflower, The Drawbridge, Van Gogh’s Room, Starry Nights, and Blackbirds Over the Wheat-fields. Should have also gotten the Flowering Almond, which came to be a favorite.