Vincent van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing (PG) Close-Up Film Review

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Dir. David Bickerstaff, Netherlands/UK, 2015, 96 mins, in English

Cast: Vincent Willem van Gogh, Dominique-Charles Janssens, Axel Ruger

This is a documentary in celebration of the re-hang of the vast art collection at the Vincent van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The re-hang and this film mark the 125th anniversary of van Gogh’s death. The documentary features senior employees of the museum and relatives of van Gogh; their testimonies help shape the story of van Gogh in a timeline of his life and his works. In addition to this, we have narration of van Gogh’s letters to his brother again documenting his personal infatuation with art and the path his career is on, from before his decision to become an artist at 27, moving around Europe to establish himself as one of the greats – until his eventual death.

Personally, when visiting the gallery I received an overwhelming sense of self-accomplishment by van Gogh in the few years he dedicated to art. His relationship with his brother is a sincerely moving story, maybe more so as it reflects on my own relationship with my brother. The film however did not conjure an iota of the same emotions I felt whilst in the museum earlier this year. Seeing his masterpieces on the screen is no substitute to the sensations experienced when viewing a piece of art in person; the movie lacks empathy. The film has little character, often presenting information as dull facts and stats and adding little sparkle to the magical life he lived. Clearly the interviewees who work in the museum are enthusiastic about the artist, however they did not excite or inspire me. Again, to labour the point, van Gogh’s work does that in person.

There are no surprises in this film; information about his inspirations isn’t stressed. For an absolute novice, the film offers a high quantity of data but when put against what is on the walls in his work, this comes across as lacking the essential; nor is the factual stuff helped by the dry delivery. The film is, however, accessible to all ages, with basic content and an actor playing out scenes of his life through his letters. Even here, the long stares direct at the camera are awkward and lack the intensity sought after. It is an element used to break up the monotony of the speakers and images of the gallery but utterly lacked the important entertainment factor. The pace picked up after the ear removal incident, 75 minutes in.

I felt particular insult when Theo’s great grandson Vincent Willem van Gogh glazed over the impact Theo’s wife had on establishing van Gogh’s art collection; with Theo dying only six months after Vincent, she took the reins and was pivotal in his legacy as it stands today. It appears the grandson would rather focus on his grandfather who at the time of Vincent’s death was six months old, being held responsible for keeping the collection intact and putting it out there for the world to see.

I left the film with an overwhelming sense of detachment. The exhibition I went to, the artist I spoke to strangers about, whose letters I listened to, translated in English were awe inspiring. Not just for a sentimental fool as myself. The phrase ‘love conquers all’ really rang true with Vincent and Theo. Theo’s love and support is like the foundations of a beautiful home, where all van Gogh’s inspiration lives, grows and prospers. The film captured a fragment of this, and told the story of van Gogh I have heard for many years. There was no pace and the delivery was dreary. Vincent is said to have said “Art is long and life is short”. If life is short I wouldn’t spend a minute on seeing this again.

Review by Jennifer Chuks

Author: Jennifer Chuks

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