There are really only two kinds of people in this world; those who regard art itself as life, and, those who merely consider it something mildly attractive to fill an empty wall. The artist’s passion is what is at stake in Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956), reporting to be the cinematic biography of Vincent Van Gogh’s terrible joy and abject sorrows inextricably linked to his paintbrush and canvas. Van Gogh is undeniably one of the extremes in the post-impressionist art world, with copious material to prove it; 2,100 completed artworks, including 860 oil paintings and more than 1,300 watercolors, drawings, sketches, and prints. Yet, here was a man so wrought with the fire and music of a tormented muse he could never entirely bring himself to cultivate lasting human relationships – except, perhaps, a mutual devotion to his younger brother, Theo. The infamous story of Van Gogh cutting off his ear for love is a myth. While it is true he took a straight razor to, and partially amputated the lobe of his right ear, the incident took place after a professional disagreement involving fellow post-impressionist, Paul Gauguin.
Equally in dispute are the circumstances surrounding Van Gogh’s death. The historical record has always maintained Van Gogh shot himself in the chest in a field in Auvers, France; a miscalculated suicide attempt that did, in fact, penetrate the skin but failed to fatally damage any internal organs. Stumbling back to his house, Van Gogh was attended to by Theo, who dressed the wound and put him to bed with the intent of fetching a doctor. By morning, the artist seemed to have sufficiently recovered and was in good spirits. But later that same afternoon, infection from the bullet still lodged somewhere near his spine set in and Van Gogh died some 29 hours later. The truth is perhaps more ominous. No gun was ever recovered, either from the field or Van Gogh’s home, and historians since have come to speculate Van Gogh may have been the victim of a local boy with whom he had a ‘complex’ relationship.
Lust for Life isn’t particularly concerned with plumbing the mystery surrounding either incident. Under the iron maiden stringencies of Hollywood’s self-governing Production Code, such salacious tidbits were decidedly taboo. And Vincente Minnelli was not about to bludgeon the reputation of a man he clearly admired, and about whose trials and tribulations, for at least ten years, he had been desperately trying to get a movie made. Although the project was eventually green lit by MGM, permission was begrudgingly given by VP Dore Schary, though only after Minnelli had consented to direct Kismet (1955); a big-budgeted movie musical Minnelli had absolutely zero interest in making. “My father believed in magic and he fought for truth,” Minnelli’s daughter, Liza would later comment, “Above all, he believed with all his heart that the combination of those two elements on the screen was art.”
There are, of course, parallels to be extrapolated between Van Gogh’s obsessive/compulsive nature, his absolute immersion in his work at the sacrifice of everything else, and Minnelli’s own complex love affair with making movies. Lust for Life is the only movie Minnelli ever initiated during his tenure at MGM; a passion project typifying Minnelli’s own unquenchable thirst to make meaning of the psychologically complexities of an artist’s struggle to bring life to his art – or rather, as witnessed through the exacting precision of this particular artist’s camera eye. To his dying day, Minnelli would regard Lust for Life as a personal triumph. Indeed, the project had been a long time in coming. Irving Stone’s 1934 novel had been purchased by MGM in 1946 for a then whopping $120,000.00. But its’ somber tone created concerns inside the front office about the picture becoming a real downer; and this just after the arduous years of WWII. Repeatedly shelved and resurrected over the next ten years, at varying intervals Lust for Life was to have been directed by Richard Brooks, Jean Renoir or Jean Negulesco and to have starred Yul Brynner, Marlon Brando or Kirk Douglas. Screenwriters, Richard Llewellyn, Dalton Trumbo, and even, Irving Stone all took their crack at adapting the text; at one point shaping up to become an independently produced venture in Europe, co-funded by Dino De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti.
In the end, MGM elected to produce the movie themselves, particularly after Minnelli pressed on to direct it. Casting proved the least problematic aspect. Minnelli had hoped to shoot Lust for Life in 3-strip Technicolor and in the standard Academy ratio of 1.33:1. Alas, by 1956, both processes had been abandoned; Technicolor because of its considerable expense, in favor of the infinitely cheaper (but also less richly saturated) Eastman Kodak mono-pack; the latter, ever since Darryl F. Zanuck’s ‘miracle’ of Cinemascope (you see it without glasses!...remember?) had ‘revolutionized’ the industry – or rather, deluded them into believing all Hollywood had to do to compete with television was simply adopt a more literal ‘bigger is better’ mentality. Eventually, Minnelli conducted a pair of screen tests; one shot on Eastman stock, the other in MGM’s abandoned Ansco color process. While time would prove neither satisfactory (at least, in terms of creating preservation masters that did not severely fade or suffer from the dreaded implosion of Vinegar Syndrome), Ansco nevertheless was able to reproduce the saffron yellows and sapphire blues so essentially a part of Van Gogh’s color palette and essential to be reproduced in the movie.
In the meantime, screenwriter, Norman Corwin began the arduous task of adapting Stone’s novel. In the process, Corwin would jettison Stone’s fabricated idea of a ‘love interest’ for Van Gogh. While the artist undoubtedly indulged his more cursory senses with diverting sexual excursions, his one true love – certain to be expounded upon in the film – was his art. As such, Lust for Life would adhere more closely to the truth of Van Gogh than the romanticized mythology concocted by Stone. But the production was hit with another snag when Theo Van Gogh’s son – also named Theo – absolutely refused to grant his consent to a Hollywood-ized version of his late uncle’s life. While the Van Gogh estate could not prevent such a picture from being made, it could file an injunction to stop the usage of written exchanges between Van Gogh and his brother to be used as integral plot points in the movie. Minnelli, who was determined to reference the interplay between art and life, could not eschew his responsibilities on Kismet. While he had no difficulty convincing the studio to let him shoot Lust for Life on location in Europe, complications on Kismet would not free him up in time to take advantage of various locations planned for Lust for Life under optimal weather conditions; unless…the picture was shot in reverse order from the actual events taking place.
To this end, producer, John Houseman created an itinerary that was militarily precise for Minnelli to follow; exacting to the nth degree and leaving very little room for Minnelli to maneuver in the event of inclement weather or to indulge his usual proclivities for experimentation, once left to his own devices. To expedite the arduousness of Minnelli’s European sojourn, literally following Van Gogh’s journey of self-discovery from Borinage, Belgium to Amsterdam; then, later, Paris, Provence and finally, Ile de France; MGM’s legal department began an aggressive search to borrow legitimate Van Gogh’s paintings and sketches from private collectors and international museums alike, to be photographed as transparencies with a specially fitted lens created by MGM’s own, John Arnold; then, recreated at Culver City twice; once as the completed painting, and, a second time, as the incomplete work-in-progress.
While Minnelli and Houseman had concurred early in their casting choices - Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn as Van Gogh and Gauguin respectively – and furthermore, had found a kindred spirit in Pamela Brown, a husky-voiced actress to play the part of Christine – a prostitute with whom Van Gogh briefly sets up house – the part of Theo proved a minor challenge to fill; Minnelli unable to entirely commit to this search as he feverishly toiled to rid himself of Kismet back in Culver City. In the wake of his absence, Houseman unearthed a hidden treasure in James Donald, a relative unknown to movie audiences, but an accomplished actor on London’s West End. Donald brought to the role all the qualities essential to carry off its prickly masculine sensitivity. Minnelli was also forced to concede the early shooting of springtime orchards in bloom at Arles to cinematographer, Joseph Ruttenberg, whose rough footage Minnelli was exceptionally pleased with, as it beautifully mimicked Van Gogh’s own journalized descriptions. At last, divested of Kismet, Minnelli arrived in France to begin shooting Lust for Life in a backwards chronology, pleased with Houseman’s location scouting; also with the reconstruction of Van Gogh’s ‘little yellow house’ in Arles. The real one had been destroyed in an Allied bombardment during WWII. Otherwise, authenticity proved the order of the day, with Minnelli’s verve to capture Van Gogh’s world exactly as it had been, right down to the very footsteps the artist had taken, slowing beginning to negatively elongate the shooting schedule.
In Hollywood, this gradual lengthening was not lost on cost-cutting production VP, Dore Schary who, having assumed the reigns of MGM’s daily production in 1950, was equally aware of storm clouds gathering around his own regime inside Metro’s New York offices; his tenure foreshortened by the disastrous debut of 1957’s Raintree County; the most expensive homegrown movie undertaken at the studio and one of its more colossally obvious flops. Through a series of intercontinental cablegrams, Schary encouraged Houseman to rein in Minnelli and Houseman, whose relationship with Minnelli on the previously completed, The Cobweb (1955) had been anything but cordial, agreed to hasten Minnelli along whenever and wherever possible. He also promised to pare down Minnelli’s unwieldy 148 page shooting script before Minnelli had the opportunity to frivolously shoot copious footage, doomed to remain on the cutting room floor.
Minnelli bristled but persisted at Houseman’s breakneck pace without sacrificing quality. Inclement weather in Belgium prevented Minnelli from completing the thwarted marriage proposal Van Gogh made to his cousin, Kee (Jeanette Sterke), while technical limitations in attempting to shoot down a real mine shaft in Borinage forced Minnelli and his cameraman, Freddie Young, to recreate both moments back on sets built by Preston Ames at Culver City. And although Minnelli had stiffened over losing cameraman, Freddie Young, replaced as cinematographer at the studio’s behest by Russell Harlan for the American shoot, Minnelli was immensely pleased with the seamless verisimilitude Harlan was able to achieve; imperceptible to the naked eye. Pleading and receiving the services of editor, Adrienne Fazan, Minnelli evolved a shorthand approach to illustrating the meticulous way an artist creates his work on canvass. Star, Kirk Douglas, fighting a nagging throat infection, nevertheless maintained his verve for the role. At preview everyone except Dore Schary was impressed. To Schary, the picture still ran too long and a few of the scenes played sluggishly.
With Minnelli already committed to begin shooting Tea and Sympathy (1956), Schary called in an unaccredited George Cukor for minor retakes; trimming additional scenes and lopping off Gauguin’s entrance and Van Gogh’s funeral before previewing the picture two more times. On this third outing, Schary was infinitely more satisfied, particularly after receiving a preview card thus inscribed, “I wish you luck on a commercial success. You already have an artistic one.” Alas, this proved to be a precursor of the way Lust for Life would eventually be received by the public at large. In retrospect, MGM’s marketing is partly to blame, its lurid poster art, illustrating an impassioned Kirk Douglas attempting to molest a semi-nude model in the middle of his Paris atelier, completely at odds with Minnelli’s own desire to illustrate the all-consuming passion Van Gogh demonstrated for art itself as a substitute for life. Kirk Douglas was to further muddy the waters when he hinted in an interview that Van Gogh was a closeted homosexual; a revelation causing MGM’s publicity department to order Douglas give no more interviews or else, keep his ‘goddamn motivations’ to himself.
Viewing Lust for Life today, it remains unlike anything attempted at MGM during this vintage; certainly, a rarity among Minnelli’s own canon; a respite from all the commercialism the director had been forced to embrace in order to satisfy the New York offices. Then, as now, movie success is viewed almost exclusively by revenues accrued. Lust for Life is a grand experiment apart from this mainstream; arguably, MGM’s last truly inspired endeavor to replicate the ‘prestige picture’ mentality once prevalent at the studio under the old Irving Thalberg regime; intently meant to advance, rather than merely satisfy the public’s pabulum-weaned appetite for glossy, homogenized, predictable and pretty entertainments. Oddly enough, Lust for Life does satisfy at least a few of these expectations too – at least, partly. Kirk Douglas’ potent performance in particular, while immersed in his character, is nevertheless an ode to his own proclivity as a towering and boastful performer. In this regard, Lust for Life is no more about an artist’s life than, say, Minnelli’s other great picture with Douglas – The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) can be taken seriously as a literal testament to the machinations of Hollywood film-making and the inglorious bastards who grind it out like fresh meat from the sausage mills.
After a rousing main title under which Miklós Rózsa’s passionately somber music plays, we are immediately introduced to the hero of the piece; Kirk Douglas’ forlorn missionary in training, a disappointment to his father’s legacy and an utter embarrassment to the Belgium committee assigned to train and assess his progress. One of the deciding committee members, Dr. Bosman (Laurence Naismith) takes pity on Van Gogh. Struck by his impassioned pleas, Bosman assigns Van Gogh to administer the word of God to the impoverished and isolated inhabitants of Borinage; a desolate mining village. Van Gogh preaches the gospel; determined to inspire his congregation. They are, alas, a silent, disillusioned, and downtrodden rabble; the men prone to hard drink and bitterness, their women sheathed in unflattering shrouds. Here is a world as foreign, remote and unfeeling as any Van Gogh would encounter. After, a local, Ducrucq (John Ruddock) casually walks out on his sermon, Van Gogh chases the man to his squalid flat, imploring to help make him understand.
Ducrucq takes Van Gogh down the mine, exposing him to the cruel and inhospitable conditions. Minnelli would have preferred to shoot these sequences in an actual shaft, a prospect vetoed by the size of the camera, unable to fit into such claustrophobic spaces, also, by Freddie Young’s inability to properly light the scene. Nevertheless, the mine sets created for the film are a grim reminder of these unsafe work conditions; Minnelli populating the labor force with prematurely aged and careworn faces of men and children alike. Foregoing the committee’s generous allowance, Van Gogh elects to live amongst the people, to invest himself body and soul in their daily strife and struggles; embracing their miseries as his own with genuine heart and gentle kindness. Hence, when a mining accident claims Ducrucq’s life, Van Gogh works feverishly to bring solace and comfort to the wounded and dying. Hurrying home for additional supplies, he is confronted by Commissioner Van Den Berghe (Noel Howitt) and Commissioner De Smet (Ronald Adams), who admonish him for his decision to live under the same foul conditions as the church’s flock. Van Gogh is outraged, unable to contain his contempt for theirs, challenging Van Den Berghe and De Smet as hypocrites.
A year’s time passes. Eventually, Theo Van Gogh (James Donald) comes in search of his elder brother; gravely concerned to find an unkempt Vincent lying on a bed of hay in his slum. Vincent tries to explain his purpose to his brother; to be of use and disseminate hope to the unfortunate. Theo accuses Vincent of being an idler; but Vincent is racked with guilt and shame at having failed at virtually every profession he has endeavored to pursue. Theo takes pity on Vincent, pledging to be an integral part of his life from now on or, at least, until Vincent is able to find his way. Vincent returns home with Theo, immersing himself in his art; his room wallpapered in sketches, his mind ever-chasing after the elusiveness of capturing life on a canvas. His mother, Anna Cornelia (Madge Kennedy) urges prudence to keep the family peace, suggesting Vincent may want to show his drawings to their cousin, Anton Mauve (Noel Purcell); an artist of some repute. Although reluctant to do so, at least for a while, Vincent falls into line with his parent’s wishes, even though they go against the grain of his own, as yet unformed, and uninformed, life’s ambitions.
Vincent’s initial reunion with his cousin, Kay (Jeanette Sterke) is strained and awkward; he casually bringing up her late husband, Voss; decidedly upsetting to her despite a year’s mourning. Afterward, Vincent’s father, Theodorus (Henry Daniell), a pious minister, is mildly perturbed with Vincent’s seeming disrespect for God. But Vincent has chosen to find a sense of the divine in his work. His art becomes his passion. It will eventually become his life. For the moment, he toils independently with Theo, a successful art dealer, providing him the necessary supplies and stipends to survive. Kay’s presence has a softening effect on Vincent’s character; humanizing his art too. Alas, at the end of one glorious summer’s retreat, Vincent attempts to make violent love to Kay. She is horrified by his impetuous proposal of marriage and retreats to the relative safety of her family’s home, pursued by Vincent who is eventually thwarted in his amorous pursuits when Kay’s father confides she has found his behavior ‘disgusting’. To prove the depth of his passion for Kay, Vincent holds the palm of his hand over the open flame of a burning candle. The burn is severe but Vincent is unmoved to cry out. Now, disillusioned and demoralized, Vincent retreats to Dirk’s Taverne, a local pub, to drown his sorrow.
He meets Christine (Pamela Brown); a tormented creature who offers to bind Vincent’s wound. For a time, the two are made whole by their mutual suffrage; one’s pain purging the other’s in tandem; each discovering something ‘holy’ in their implied illicit sexual liaison. Eventually, Vincent garners the courage to approach his cousin, Anton with a portfolio of his art. Anton is compassionate, but honest. Vincent’s work needs skill as well as heart. He must redouble his efforts if he is to ‘move’ and ‘inspire’ people with his painterly prowess. Anton urges Vincent to work in watercolors and oils – no less than three hours a day. It will improve his drawings. Anton also affords Vincent a stipend. This, alas, doesn’t last long and neither does Christine’s patience. Soon, their live-in relationship is strained to the breaking point.
At approximately the same time, Vincent’s father suffers a stroke and Vincent is encouraged to return home. After Theodorus’ death, Vincent appeals to an empty pulpit, questioning his own inability to fulfill his father’s wishes. Theo explains how “We always think that there’s time and that we can give love on our own terms. Then, one day we wake up to realize there’s no time and we cannot give it on any terms, much less our own.” Theo urges Vincent to join him in Paris. But he refuses the offer; determined instead to capture the essence of honest, hard-working laborers on canvass; weavers, farmers and the like; men and women who have come by their daily bread honestly and carry the burdens of life in their facial expressions. Minnelli is particularly good at paralleling Vincent’s art, appropriately framed dead center within the Cinemascope frame, juxtaposed with living recreations reframed to accommodate the vast expanses of the film’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio. In the middle of Vincent’s ambitious labor of love, to capture something of the ‘good, dark, Dutch earth’, he is visited by his sister, Willemien (Jill Bennett). She is reserved in her judgment, but suggests Vincent’s behavior has created a friction with the neighbors and even their closest friends who have stopped coming to the house because of him. As such, Vincent elects to leave his ancestral home for good.
In the meantime, critics at the Exhibition of Impressionist Painters in Paris berate the shift away from the classical renderings that have embodied the very precepts of ‘fine art’. At intervals, the progressive breakthroughs of Pissarro, Cezanne, Monet and their ilk are judged as degenerate works; an anarchist’s cancer on the arts. But to Van Gogh, these masterpieces are reaffirming of his place in the new order of the art world. From Camille Pissarro (David Leonard) Vincent learns to explore the secret interplay of light and shadow, the reflection of many different colors affecting the artist’s impressions of a single object, and, above all else, never to be timid in exploring the endless possibilities to express one’s self through such observations. Seurat (David Bond) attempts to debate the mathematical qualities of art. Meanwhile, Theo has grown impatient with his brother’s inability to simply understand that not everyone can live an artist’s life; that some people will never be able to appreciate either art or artists for who and what they truly are, but nevertheless, do not deserve Vincent’s directness and insults to draw their own clarity from what only he obviously can see.
At a small shop in Paris, Vincent meets Paul Gauguin (Anthony Quinn); by far the most clairvoyant and appreciative of his work. Here, at last, is someone who can implicitly fathom the directives of his own artistic vision, who both admires and criticizes with an unbiased heart, but also a very keen eye able to see through the rhetorical debates. Gauguin’s advice: to isolate one’s self from friends, family or casual female acquaintances who cannot and do not respect the life an artist has chosen for himself – arguably, the only life any artist can lead without going mad. Vincent departs into the night, leaving a letter of gratitude for Theo to discover on his mantelpiece. A short while later, Vincent discovers another phase in his life just beginning, this one imbued with renewed optimism. The salvation of these montage sequences, a clever use of parallel cutting between real life subjects and Van Gogh’s impressionist interpretations, is Miklós Rózsa’s fiery underscore, prone (as are all Rózsa’s underscores) to orchestral explosions, moments of bombast befitting a swashbuckler, tamed at the last possible moment by James Donald’s voiceover narration.
Escaping an unscrupulous landlord, Vincent befriends a robust sea captain, Roulin (Niall MacGinnis), who helps him barter modest rent for a roomy house of his own. It is here where, arguably, the real Van Gogh is born; the artist whose ‘terrible lucidity’ begins to consume his every fiber of being. Vincent paints with lightning speed; his craft advancing in leaps and bounds; toiling into the wee hours of the morning, painting canvasses under the rich orange hues of a late summer sun or by the pallid glow of moonlight, augmented by a series of candles firmly implanted atop his straw hat. There’s truth but no logic to this period in Van Gogh’s career; Vincent embracing the wretched folly of depleting his health and resources in service to an obsession. A moment of clarity interrupts, after Theo writes he is to be married to Johanna (Toni Gerry); a compassionate woman who urges her husband to do all he can to help Vincent along.
We move into the bro-mance portion of our story; Vincent elated to have Paul Gauguin move into his home, expressly fixing up a room and a studio with sunflowers he has painted to adorn the walls of Gauguin’s bedroom. Gauguin brings order into Vincent’s home; also, the solidity of his own financial management skills and some very strong opinions about other artists, some of whom Vincent desperately admires. The mutual admiration between these two titans is controversial and short fused, but long on respect; exhibiting a binding quality, despite their stark differences of opinion. Yet, here are two men who could no more occupy the same space for too long as a pair of rattlers competing for the same bits of bloated carrion fermenting in the noonday sun. Vincent prefers to work under the most inhospitable weather conditions; as example, bolting down his canvass to a wagon, merely to paint the wind during a perilous storm. Gauguin, on the other end, prefers structure to chaos; rearranging his life accordingly. It’s this atypical ‘odd couple’ syndrome come to bear on their otherwise ‘perfect’ relationship; the tug-o-war eventually boiling over into insults; Gauguin accusing Vincent of being soft and never having committed himself to a bit of hard labor. As Gauguin sees it, there is nothing noble in the blistered struggles of life; something Vincent could never comprehend since his entire pursuit of art has been backed by Theo’s monetary advances.
Having witnessed Van Gogh at some of his lowest and most tortuous moments in life, racked with physical pain, mental exhaustion, self-doubt and self-pity, we already know Gauguin is sorely mistaken in such assumptions. But in a fit of self-revelation, from where can such moments of clarity come? Certainly, not from Vincent who, out of frustration, takes a straight razor to his ear in the wee hours of the morning. When Gauguin discovers Vincent, he has already lost a considerable amount of blood and is lying face down on his bed. The police arrive, taking Vincent to hospital. Gauguin packs up and leaves. However, a short while later, Theo arrives at hospital, suggesting a respite at a nearby sanitarium. There, with the aid of doctors and nuns, Vincent’s sanity is gradually restored. Buoyed by his brother’s progress, Theo elects to move Vincent into his and Johanna’s home. For a brief wrinkle in time, their love seems to do the trick.
Alas and far too soon, Vincent returns to his compulsions; his work overtaking his moments of clarity. He paints with an unparalleled fervor. It consumes, but then castrates his rationality. While toiling on a new canvass in the wheat fields, Vincent pulls out a revolver; Minnelli cutting away to a lonely wagon on the horizon with a fresh load of wheat, the echo of a gunshot mildly spooking the horse. It’s a lyrical suicide, as only Minnelli could have created for the camera, the forced dénouement, featuring a philosophical Van Gogh on his deathbed, murmuring to Theo “I think I want to go home” before expiring, accompanied by a dissolve to many of the artist’s best remembered works, corralled together to fill the Cinemascope frame, is, in hindsight, a finale probably imposed by the studio to clarify the moment for the audience.
More than any other film in Vincent Minnelli’s canon, Lust for Life exposes the unflattering aspects of an artist’s existence. The shear sublimity of the work itself often eclipses the struggles endured to create it. The irony in Lust for Life is that the artist is often the most morally ambiguous and emotionally tainted of individuals; his creations the purest expression of an unquenchable thirst to belong or, at the very least, make sense of the world that surrounds. Arguably, he can never quite become a part of this ‘normalcy’ and thus is doomed to remain its fateful and fitful outsider. This penetrating torture is eloquently expressed throughout the film, chiefly because Kirk Douglas’ performance, as the tragically imperfect Van Gogh, makes no attempt to stir the audience’s emotions with such obvious effects. Douglas, whose career is by now the stuff of legends, and who – in life as well as his art – has proven to possess the innate defiance, determination and will to thrive, despite seemingly insurmountable odds, is a passionate Van Gogh; imbued with that shapeless sense of ambition that enriches his art in unexpected ways.
Minnelli’s quest is hardly derived from the ‘love affair’ ilk most Hollywood bio-pics are generally condemned to follow. Nor is it a travelogue through the life and times of Vincent Van Gogh. Rather, Lust for Life peels back the façade of art itself to reveal a man’s blind ambition to create it under the most unpromising conditions. In our modern times, Van Gogh might have spent his entire life locked away in an asylum, suffering from crippling bouts of depression and enduring the various and sundry medical treatments to rid him of his tormented genius. The great tragedy in the film is not Van Gogh’s death, but the overwhelming lack of understanding for the man while he lived. This collective rejection by society and Van Gogh’s belligerent reeling against its small-minded pretenses are at the crux of Minnelli’s film. An artist cannot survive under such inhospitable conditions. Perhaps, he dare not even try, but rather find his solace among the like-minded who share his affliction. Yet, even there, as the later vignettes with Gauguin attest, the implacable nature of the artist, stubborn in his own beliefs, is doomed to isolate and tear their burgeoning friendship apart. No, Lust for Life is not merely a bittersweet portrait of an artist’s inner desolation and the self-destructive tones it adopts merely to survive, but a harrowing character study of the artist as a social outcast; society disingenuously willing to embrace the art, but never the man who has created it.
Lust for Life arrives on Blu-ray at long last and in a 1080p transfer befitting the magnificence of Russell Harlan and Freddie Young’s gorgeous cinematography. Whereas the 2006 DVD was often a murky mess of muddy colors, the Blu-ray exhibits a refinement with bold, richly saturated hues throughout. Yes, dissolves between scenes are still marginally plagued by a perceptible moment of transitional color fading and bump in film grain, but this was an inherent flaw of Cinemascope. Bravo to Warner for this effort. Contrast greatly advances over the SD disc and fine detail pops as it should. Flesh tones are very natural. Grain is present at perceivably natural levels. Wow! This looks fantastic! Also, there is significantly more information within the frame. Warner’s DTS 5.1 surround is very strong and impressive, presumably culled from original 4-track Westrex stereo. Miklós Rózsa’s score is the real benefactor here. Really good solid work from Warner on this release.
Better still; the only extra on the DVD had been a comprehensive commentary from film historian, Dr. Drew Casper. Warner has ported this over to the Blu-ray, and, augmented this presentation with ‘Van Gogh: Darkness into Light’ – a 1956 ‘making of’ produced in conjunction with the movie to promote its general release. At 20 min. it’s a little scant on detail, but nevertheless offers a fascinating ‘behind the scenes’ glimpse on the work itself. Bottom line: Lust for Life was always a very special movie; Minnelli’s intensity behind the camera felt in every frame projected onto the screen. Here, at long last, is the movie in a manner befitting its artistry. You are going to love this disc. It’s that simple. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)