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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

VAN GOGH: BRUSH WITH GENIUS -- DVD review by porfle

After watching hour upon hour of horror, sci-fi, and action flicks, sometimes you just want to switch on PBS or The Learning Channel, kick back, and soak up a little culture.  Or, you could stick VAN GOGH: BRUSH WITH GENIUS (2009) into your DVD player.  It's not the most exciting or informative documentary ever made, but it isn't meant to be.  What it is, mainly, is a nice way to appreciate some of Vincent Van Gogh's paintings for about 40 minutes.

Originally filmed for IMAX, this leisurely-paced visual biography gets us up inside Van Gogh's paintings with some extreme closeups that reveal all the caked-up layers of paint that the troubled artist so furiously dabbed onto each canvas.  We even hear the brush strokes as he toils away at a few of the more than 900 works dashed off by Van Gogh before committing suicide at age 37. 

Here, cinematographer Vincent Mathias was granted the rare opportunity to photograph the paintings directly, without the protective glass, in the vault of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.  This affords us an even more intimate viewing experience.  It's also interesting to see them as they hang in the museum, remaining static and eternal within the frame as thousands of anonymous viewers flit past in speeded-up motion. 

Van Gogh himself narrates the film as voiced by Jacques Gamblin, talking to us from beyond the grave as he mentions the irony of one of his works recently selling for eight million dollars while he himself only made a single sale during his life.  Occasionally the writers supply the artist with some interesting self-analysis such as the following admission:  "Women find me more interesting now that I've died.  I think I scared them off when I was alive."

Details of his personal life are sketchy--his relationship with fellow artist Paul Gauguin, as well as that unfortunate ear incident, are touched upon only briefly as the artist would rather discuss his work and the influence that his surroundings, along with his mental and emotional state, had on it. 

The ghostly Van Gogh expresses particular interest in the activities of two people--a film director (Peter Knapp) passionate about his paintings whom we see documenting the locations in which they were created (clearly a surrogate of this film's director, François Bertrand), and a woman named Ellen (Hélène Seuzaret) who works in the basement at the Van Gogh Museum and tirelessly pores over his drawings and extensive correspondence with brother Theo.  It's through these characters that we see, from a modern perspective, the lasting relevance of Van Gogh's work.

VAN GOGH: BRUSH WITH GENIUS is at its best when showing us the actual locations, the landscapes and the buildings (some of which are virtually unchanged), and how they were transformed by the eyes, the hands, and the mind of Van Gogh.  Through often cleverly-done transitions we see just how he interpreted these relatively mundane subjects as increasingly impressionistic explosions of color and movement.  A haunting score by composer Armand Amar compliments these visuals.

The DVD from Image Entertainment is in 16x9 widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, and can be listened to in English, French, Spanish, or Japanese.  There are no subtitles available, making much of the heavily-accented narration difficult to understand (for me, anyway). 

Extras include a slideshow of Van Gogh's paintings, several trailers for similar educational DVDs, and a 20-minute "making of" documentary.  This features the filmmakers discussing their feelings about Van Gogh and how they translated them onto the screen.  Co-writer Marie Sellier talks of reading Vincent's many letters to brother Theo and how these simple missives made her feel closer to him as an actual person.

As a film, VAN GOGH: BRUSH WITH GENIUS is a finely-wrought portrait of the enigmatic artist.  Not quite a biography, it's more concerned with telling the visual story of Van Gogh's stunning artistic genius and how it developed over the years until his final burst of furious creativity shortly before his death.  An air of melancholy hangs over the film as it did the artist himself, in contrast with the uplifting and life-affirming brilliance of his work.

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