Kirk Douglas could be a little much, but that proves to be the right amount in Lust for Life, a melodramatic biographical drama about Vincent Van Gogh. The painter led a tumultuous life of emotional extremes, suffering from what might today be diagnosed as manic depression. Unbridled energy certainly defines his impressionistic work, and that’s exactly the sort of energy Douglas exudes in the film. Every gesture he makes is dramatic—and you could say the same of every brushstroke in something like Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.
Of course, Van Gogh’s work also displayed subtlety, and Lust for Life—from Douglas’ performance on down—doesn’t have much time for that. Minor characters are broadly drawn, while Van Gogh’s personal philosophy is repeatedly declared in speeches or voiceover readings of his letters. Then there is Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin, who has the lustiest lust for life. (“I’m talking about women, man, women!” he chortles.) There’s no doubt that Quinn is fun, and it’s interesting to watch the normally domineering Douglas wilt before him as the subservient Van Gogh. But nuanced he’s not.
Lust for Life opens with Van Gogh as a zealous evangelist, looking to follow in the footsteps of his pastor father. His erratic temperament, however, puts him on the wrong side of the official church (a group as broadly caricatured as the Parisian art world). Found by his brother Theo (James Donald) living in squalor, Van Gogh is accused of being lazy. But he protests that all he wants is to be useful to society, and offers a fairly cogent description of the depression that holds him back, describing himself as a “man who’s idle in spite of himself.”
Eventually Van Gogh will find purpose in painting, and indeed the movie offers a strong theology of work—the idea that God can be honored wherever we use the talent he gave us, inside the church or not. Lust for Life features exhilarating scenes of Van Gogh at work, often set in the locations of some of his most famous paintings and punctuated with close-ups of the original artwork. Like the 2017 animated experiment Loving Vincent, the movie functions not only as a biopic, but as an exercise in aesthetic reinterpretation.
Lust for Life is directed by Vincente Minnelli, whose own creations had a manic-depressive quality. Try a double feature of The Bad and the Beautiful, also with Douglas, and The Band Wagon to see what I mean. There is an early scene where Van Gogh makes an ill-advised, aggressive marriage proposal and the camera moves in on him to match his rashness. Like The Bad and Beautiful, the movie also features a woman undone by loneliness and alcoholism. Pamela Brown hits real notes of sorrow as Christine, an unwed mother who finds comfort in Van Gogh’s idealism, but eventually can’t endure his mental instability.
Lust for Life is honest about where Van Gogh’s illness leads, not shying away from the awfulness of the infamous ear-cutting incident (which Minnelli depicts with his own brand of lurid impressionism) or the tough truth of Van Gogh’s own death. Douglas enacts that, too, with typical gusto, when the moment would probably have been better served by a note of quiet. But I suppose it would have been too much to expect him to let Van Gogh go gentle into that good night.