Ebertfest: Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh


A shot from Paul Cox’s Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh, which recreates van Gogh’s “Bedroom in Arles”.

Paul Cox is the sort of director that film nerds should know about. He’s a well-known arthouse director in some circles, but overall, he seems to fly under the radar. His work only became known to me after I started attending Ebertfest a few years ago; Mr. Cox frequently attends the festival, and his films (as well as a documentary about his fight with cancer) have been featured at the festival several times.

Cox’s films are filled with beauty and life. His work tends to be enamored with simple pleasures, like good food, nature, music, and lovemaking. There is something very comfortable and home-like about his movies, even when he explores difficult questions about death and loss.

Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh (1987) feels like a very personal passion project for Mr. Cox, even though the film is entirely about Mr. van Gogh.

Most people know the name of Vincent van Gogh as that of one of the world’s great painters, who languished in poverty before he died of a gunshot wound in 1890. He worked as a painter for a decade, producing over 2,000 pieces of art; he only succeeded in selling one. What most people don’t realize, though, is that he was quite a writer as well. His letters to his brother Theo are heartfelt, frank, and deeply personal documents about his life.

Paul Cox’s film centers on van Gogh’s letters to Theo. The soundtrack of the film is merely actor John Hurt reading these letters, and this plays over a kaleidoscope of images from Paul Cox. The film’s imagery combines shots of van Gogh’s paintings (often in extreme close-up, to show the dimensionality of the paint) with images from the countryside that surrounded the painter’s life. At times, the camera captures light in the way that van Gogh captured it, finding the peculiar purples and blues of evening and shadow. At other times, the camera captures a full-out, moving recreation of an iconic painting.

The overall result is a film of great personal depth and rich beauty, one that should be accessible even to those who are not intimately familiar with the life or work of van Gogh. This film is not a history or an analysis; it is a record of a human being.

Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh is not available on streaming services at the moment, but it is readily available on DVD.

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