In “Lust for Life,” Vincent Minnelli’s 1956 film about Vincent Van Gogh, Kirk Douglas gives a solid performance as the troubled painter, whose unstable mental condition provides the basis for the plot. He starts out as preacher sent to a desolate coal mining area, where he ends up living a squalid existence in a filthy room. His brother Theo comes to his rescue, and takes him back to Holland, where Vincent discovers his passion for drawing and painting.
Movies about artists like to portray a tortured existence, as shown in 2 other artist movies — “Moulin Rouge,” a 1952 John Huston film about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and “Pollock,” a 2000 film about Jackson Pollock. Films about artists should be set in France, so Moulin Rouge and Lust for Life work better for me than Pollock. Minnelli spent a great deal of time showing the scenes that Van Gogh painted. We see paintings in Pollock too, but since he painted abstracts, we don’t have a visual connection to what he saw. Michael Powell’s “Age of Consent,” from 1969, which stars James Mason as an older artist dealing with his relationship with a teenage model, is less about art than about the coming of age of a young girl (Helen Mirren).
Lust for Life provides lots of philosophical discussions about painting styles, especially between Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn, who plays Paul Gauguin. Other famous painters in the vibrant painting scene of Paris in the 1880s appear in the movie too, and Van Gogh talks to all of them. The director had access to Van Gogh’s paintings and shows the transition from the actual landscape to the finished painting. This helps us understand Van Gogh’s passion for the visual world.
Since painting is a solitary practice, the drama only exists in this film because of Van Gogh’s mental illnesses. I wonder if a film could be made of another influential and eccentric painter, Albert Pinkham Ryder. Ryder, although a loner, gained fame and sold many paintings in his lifetime. That’s not as interesting as Van Gogh, who fought through poverty and mental illness to master his art.