Unstarry Nights

Maurice Pialat’s VINCENT is, for some reason, the first Pialat movie I’ve gotten around to. I’ve owned the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray of it, and POLICE, for ages. This should prompt me to watch more.

I mean, one could complain — the movie is long and often slow and one ends with no huge sense of understanding the main character — it’s not clear whether he’s ill or mad, his eventual suicide comes out of left field, and although he was clearly not a happy man, there’s no obvious MOTIVATION behind him suddenly shooting himself. So any desire for narrative neatness is defeated.

Pialat in interviews seems obviously complicated, a tricky customer, but he never says anything that would help guide you through his movie. He never discusses the large fictional elements he inserted into VVG’s life. Some of the movie’s deleted scenes seem like they might have helped a little, and that may be why they were deleted.

But it seems churlish to me to complain about the movie’s length (it’s not THAT long but it does SEEM quite long) when so much that’s good in it wouldn’t be there if there was a serious attempt to chip away everything that doesn’t look like a story. In the hostelry where VVG has taken a room, we see people in the back bar, and then a big hay cart comes by the window, VERY CLOSE.

(Had to photograph it off TV because I can’t frame-grab Blu-rays currently.)

“That’s amazing,” I said.

“I was about to say that,” said Fiona. But neither of us could decide exactly WHY it was amazing. The reverberant trundle and rattle of the cart in the night street is part of its gentle ominous loveliness. Certainly it relates to one of the film’s major strengths, its evocation of time and place. Without trying to transform the landscape into a Van Gogh painting, as Minnelli and Kurosawa in their own ways do, it creates an immersive beauty. Paul Verhoeven once said that when you make a period movie, you often can’t afford to pan an inch to the left or an inch to the right for fear of exposing something modern (CGI has almost removed that problem). Pialat’s filmmaking makes it feel like the painter’s world surrounds us completely, and everything we see is real.

He seems to have had a fair bit of money, but there are no Parisian street scenes, so the budget wasn’t unlimited. He’s just really good. The performances are startlingly informal, they feel present-tense but at the same time they’re never anachronistic (the prostitute singing Carmen with da-dum da-dum raunchiness). It puts you inside Van Gogh’s world but can’t or won’t put you inside his head. But it succeeds so exceptionally at the former that it still impresses no end.

21 Responses to “Unstarry Nights”

  1. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Great description of Pialat’s Van Gogh. It’s a movie that seems to detach Van Gogh from his environment, so you get a sense that Van Gogh’s art came out of this environment but isn’t a reproduction of that environment, which is always a temptation of other film-makers who made a film about Vincent, because they can’t help but tap into Van Gogh’s palette.

    But you are right that it’s not a movie that seems to put any grand thesis about Van Gogh or attempt to explain him and his life. The main thing that the movie does, with Jacques Dutronc is that it presents Van Gogh as essentially a normal person of his time, not especially inspired or insane, which other movies also fall into a temptation. All that makes an artist comes from inside, from within, and Dutronc conveys that sense of interiority very well.

  2. I think it was a (slight) mistake for them to mention his ear, because you can’t help noticing Dutronc has two of them.

  3. It’s amazing to me, speaking as a painter, that art historians practically never discuss him as a Symbolist, a lapse that feeds the popular myth about his paintings supposedly betraying “mental illness”. The Ab-ex dolts used to riff on that, fetishizing the “wildness” and “spontaneity” when V’s letters to Theo explain PRECISELY how he PLANNED to alter a color or form to produce very specific results. Oy. The Symbolists were attempting the “impossible”: their aim was to give visually legible form to inner states of mind. I ain’t seen the movie.

  4. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Van ogh is an utterly impossible figure as he’s come to serve ideological as the ne plus ultra of “The Artist.” His emotional difficulties have been equated with artistic inspiration itself –which is a complete con.

    My favorite film about an artist is A Bigger Splash I also like what Welles has to say aout icasso in F For Fake

    Cue Jonathan Richman

  5. Painters that understand modernist idioms know that the concrete workings of V’s paintings are tethered to traditions. His work is lucid. He was not painting out of insanity and, finally, killed himself when, late in life (for him, that is — he died young) he went nuts and could no longer paint the way he had. Movies NEVER get painting right.

  6. This movie seems undecided on whether VVG was mad, epileptic, bipolar. It’s not interested, I think, in a posthumous diagnosis. Also, since VVG spends much of his time interacting with a fictional girlfriend, it’s not that interested in historical veracity. A curious case.

    Anyway, I don’t think the movie is susceptible to attack on this basis. I’m surprised that both this and Lust for Life are somewhat convincing in their portrayal of painters discussing painting.

  7. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Pialat and Minnelli made the best films on Van Gogh. The only ones that hold up well and it’s amazing that Minnelli’s film is less fictional and more accurate to history than the movie made by the Frenchman.

    Van Gogh was one of the first painters whose works I followed, and when I visited New York City, seeing several of his works in person at the Met or MOMA was a great thrill. He started out as a missionary and eventually lost a good deal of his faith, in the conventional Christian milieu and values he was raised in if not necessarily faith in god. And so much of his painting is about finding beauty and purpose in the mundane and the everyday and in The Starry Night, which yeah it’s approaching Mona Lisa-level overexposure, but that painting is quite haunting and beautiful. I have a facsimile poster of it in my room and it’s the first painting I learned to “read” or interpret meaning all by myself without a guidebook, seeing the parallel lines between the tree on the left and the steeple of the church near the middle of the painting was my eureka moment. So yeah, Van Gogh was definitely someone with ideas, who knew what he was doing, and tapped into a host of art history which he knew very well.

    As film-makers, Minnelli and Pialat stand at cross-purposes. Minnelli obviously believes in beauty, in making everything beautiful so that’s his interpretation of Van Gogh as a painter. Pialat barged into French cinema as a “truth-teller” someone who’s there to show you how brutal and cold the French working class is, how relationships are cruel and so on, being as in your face as possible…so Pialat’s closer to the Van Gogh of The Potato Eaters (as was Robert Altman). So he shows Van Gogh’s working world as unsentimental and quite detached from his inner workaday life.

  8. Painters talk to each other about painting in the same way that carpenters talk to each other about chairs. Function. It’s not cinematic in the least. Even The Mystery of Picasso was a disaster, as evidenced by Picasso destroying every last one of the trashy performances he’d painted for the camera.

  9. There is one utilitarian (and therefore useful) film that shows Renoir in arthritic old age, brushes strapped to his hands. And Kandinsky submitted to film at least once. Film is simply the wrong medium for “dramatizing” painters and/or painting precisely because it seeks to do just that: dramatize.

  10. But I’ll watch this latest piece of shit. That’s how I felt walking into Tarantino’s masterpiece, and it wooed me.

  11. Farewell, Cairns!

  12. This isn’t the latest, it’s from 1991, but it’s worth a try,

    One of the things I like in the Minnelli is that VVG and Gauguin’s arguments are concrete and at least somewhat practical.

    Writing is the probably hardest artistic activity to dramatise (unless it’s collaboration). At least painting has a physical form where one thought or impulse looks different from another.

    I liked the painting stuff in Scorsese’s Life Lessons because of the emphasis on *mess* — the tape player encrusted in various hues. And I love Becker’s Montparnasse 19 which, like much of the VVG movies, is about the problem of selling (and getting drunk).

  13. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    The cool part in Lust for Life about the VVG and Gauguin argument is that Minnelli stages it in such a way that you walk away thinking both of them are right, that both have their own perspective and interpretation, and you understand why each feels a certain way. It’s rare to see that shown in movies because it tends so naturally to caricature to one-upmanship. But Minnelli instinctively avoided that.

    I like movies about painters in general. To me it’s no harder to get right than any other artform (theater, cinema, literature, dance, sculpture). One movie about a painter I like is Renato Castellari’s Life of Leonardo da Vinci which was a miniseries made in the ’70s (and I saw it on Amazon Prime Video amazingly enough). It’s quite thorough and subtle, it teaches you a great deal about Leonardo and his style and it’s very suggestive about his motivations and interpretations without spelling out…and one of the few movies about him that accepts the idea that he was gay. Life Lessons is great too. Kohei Oguri made a movie about the Japanese-French painter Leonard Foujita that’s supposed to be quite good but it’s quite hard to access (and I haven’t seen it). And among recent films…I liked “Portrait of a Young Girl on Fire”. Jia Zhangke’s “Dong” is quite good as well.

    Among movies about writers…one recent film I’d recommend is Dovlatov by Aleksei German Jr. (son of the director of Krustalyov, My Car! and Hard to be God, and a talent in his own right). It’s a great film that deals with the rigors of the publishing business. Werner Schroeter’s Malina is another great look at writing, as is Alain Resnais’ Providence. Oh and Agnes Varda’s Les Creatures, which is weird.

  14. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Nice to see your mention of Varda’s “Les Creatures” which was a major flop and practically unknown today. It’s one of her best.

  15. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    It’s on Criterion streaming, and in the Varda Criterion box.

  16. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “Life Lessons” is really about Rosanna Arquette’s anklet driving Nick Nolte wild with desire. A noble subject if there ever was one!

  17. Honey of an anklet.

  18. Lust for Life is garbage that we all enjoy. Must we use false terms to justify our taste for trash? Gaugin and VVG wrote extensively (AND PLAINLY) about their goals. Movies are stupid. We’re stupid. Now I must drink. Oh, CAIRNS YOU ARE UP AT CHIZ!!! https://chiseler.org/

  19. Quinn’s “You paint too fast!” and Douglas’ “You LOOK too fast!” are pretty plain, no?

    I’m going to write something else about McHugh so I’ll link to this piece on Monday!

  20. Posted it to Chiseler already! THANK YOU, IT’S GLORIOUS! On this other front: Gaugin NEVER accused VVG (or anyone else) of “painting too fast” — and Vinnie was not known to bear his pearly whites and scream like Kirk D. Anyhow, THANKS A MILLION!

  21. PS-I LOVE that moment in the film.

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