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Maurice Pialat's Van Gogh is not a typical biopic. More than anything, it's a period piece, placing Vincent Van Gogh (Jacques Latronc) in late 1800s France as one character among many others. Of course, Van Gogh is the most significant character here, but there are plenty of scenes without Van Gogh. Some of the other characters include Vincent's brother Theo and his wife, an ineffectual doctor tasked with curing Van Gogh's syphilis, the underage daughter of the doctor who falls in love with Vincent, and a traveling prostitute who is also in love with Vincent. Pialat presents the tangled relationships of these characters as a multi-layered portrait of the times: the traditional but "forward thinking" doctor, the idle but romantically driven daughter, and the middle generation as represented by Theo - who has made decent money as an art dealer but remains outside of polite, traditional society.
While Van Gogh might not qualify as a biopic, it does function as a character study of sorts. When the film begins, Vincent Van Gogh seems to be little more than a quiet, if somewhat irritable, eccentric. He's just been released from an asylum where he spent time being treated for "fits" and is on his way to the country to recover and work on his painting. As it turns out, he doesn't do very much of either. In the first half of film, we sometimes see Van Gogh painting, and we even see some landscapes that feature in some of his famous works, occasionally creating the impression of walking inside of a Van Gogh painting (like a subtler version of the spectacular Van Gogh sequence in Akira Kurosawa's Dreams).
However, as the film the progresses, the tone changes considerably. Vincent starts to seem less and less like the great man we assume he will be painted as. He starts drinking again and engaging in reckless romantic games with the doctor's infatuated young doctor, even after she and her father discuss Vincent's syphilis. Without handouts from his art dealer brother, who refuses to push his work on potential buyers, Vincent goes on drunken rants and bursts into violent fits of anger that those around him grit their teeth and politely put up with. By this point, he isn't painting anything of worth, or even painting at all. The result is that as the film goes on, the thought that gradually emerges is that an artist's life is not as important as their work. Even in the case of an eccentric like Van Gogh, who the doctor moans is "not like other painters," might not have been as interesting in real life as biographers would like to paint him in retrospective. Maybe he was just a pathetic, lecherous drunk whose troubled thoughts resulted in cluttered, vibrant paintings that happen to have stood the test of time. As a film, Van Gogh doesn't hit the usual familiar notes that we expect from a biopic, but it remains interesting as a period piece as well as an anti-biopic.