Lust for Life Review

In 1997 at a nursing home in Arles, in the South of France, a very old woman called Jeanne Calment died. The reason she’s in the record books is that she was the longest-lived human being on record with a fully authenticated age: one hundred and twenty-two. But the reason I mention here is that she was the last person on Earth to have met Vincent Van Gogh. Her father ran the shop in Arles where Van Gogh bought his canvases, and teenaged Jeanne helped out behind the counter. She is on record talking about her meetings with the great man, appearing at the ripe old age of 114 in a Canadian film called Vincent et Moi. She didn’t seem impressed, describing him as a coarse, ugly man who smelled.

I mention this to indicate that Van Gogh is, more than almost any other artist, seems to fascinate writers and filmmakers, particularly as he lived just before film was invented so there is no visual record of him other than his self portraits. The combination of profound talent and mental instability, a struggle that is manifest in the paintings he produced, only one of which sold in his lifetime. Apart from Lust for Life, itself based on a 1934 novel by Irving Stone, there’s also Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo, which concentrates on the relationship of the painter with his brother, who financially supported him, and Paul Cox documentary Vincent, which concentrated on the letters sent between the two men.

Vincente Minnelli was a director who spent most of his working career at one studio, MGM, where he soon became the premier in-house director. Although best known for musicals, he worked in a variety of genres. He very clearly identified with Van Gogh as well: the immediate impression you get from Lust for Life is a passion for its subject. Although this was a big-scale studio production, filmed on the real locations in colour and CinemaScope, this is clearly a very personal film.

The film deals with twelve years of Van Gogh’s life, from his work as an evangelist in mining communities, to his death by suicide at age thirty-seven. Dominating the middle section of the film is Van Gogh’s stormy relationship with fellow artist Paul Gauguin (Anthony Quinn). As Drew Casper notes in the commentary on this disc, Norman Corwin’s adaptation breaks from the norms of classical narrative, by being in five sections, each of which has its own dominant colour lent to it by Minnelli and his two cinematographers F.A. (Freddie) Young and Russell Harlan. Also holding the film together are voiceovers from Vincent and, from time to time, dissolving from real locations to the paintings that hang in the world’s museums and galleries to this day.

But this would go for nothing without Kirk Douglas’s performance as Van Gogh. Douglas had been keen to play the part, given his physical resemblance to the artist, and had been trying to set up an independent production before Minnelli cast him. In these post-Method days, it’s a full-blooded performance that can seem overstated, but given the character he’s playing, it’s just right. He’s matched by Anthony Quinn’s take on Gauguin. Douglas was Oscar-nominated, losing to Yul Brynner in The King and I. Quinn won the film’s only Oscar, as Best Supporting Actor. Several sources claim that Quinn’s performance is the shortest to win an Oscar, at only twelve minutes of screen time, but that is I suspect an error perpetuated by use of secondary sources: one viewing of the film makes it clear that it isn’t so. (The real shortest Oscar performances are those of Beatrice Straight in Network and Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love.) The rest of the cast have far less showy roles, but give strong support. The production design and Miklos Rosza's score are also world class.

Lust for Life was filmed in CinemaScope, which in at the time produced an aspect ratio of 2.55:1. Warner’s DVD is slightly cropped at 2.45:1 (measured). This film is a product of the “high Scope” era, and Minnelli uses every inch of the wide frame. Scenes would play out in a single take, with action and reaction on screen at the same time. (Panning and scanning this film would be ruinous, making it barely comprehensible in places.) And, given the visual subject matter and Minnelli’s use of colour and framing, the quality of the DVD transfer is particularly important for this film.

Warner has produced some stellar restorations of its back catalogue (which also includes the MGM catalogue up to the late 1960s), but this transfer isn’t quite up to that level. Minnelli’s use of MGM’s Metrocolor (formerly Anscocolor) process, which used single-strip Eastman film instead of three-strip Technicolor was specifically to avoid the over-saturation then associated with colour film. On this DVD, the colours are rich, with the heightened skin tones often seen at the time, but the transfer is often a little too dark, and grain is visible in the darker scenes. Every so often, there are shifts in the colour. Five years or so ago, this would be more than adequate for an older film, but the bar has been raised higher since then – by Warners amongst others.

Lust for Life was shown in cinemas with a four-track magnetic stereo soundtrack. That is the source of the present DVD’s sound mix. It’s labelled as Dolby Digital 5.1, but it sounds much like 4.0 to me, with monophonic surround given over to Miklos Rosza’s music score, with dialogue and sound effects given over to the central channel. There’s an alternate French dub in mono. There are thirty-two chapter stops and this NTSC DVD is encoded for Regions 1, 2, 3 and 4.

The main extra is a commentary by Dr Drew Casper, a film historian and academic. There are quite a few long pauses and Casper’s delivery is often dry, but this is an interesting commentary. Casper spends a lot of time discussing themes of post-war masculinity in crisis, and the nature of biographical films, and the ways in which Lust for Life deviates from this. Corwin’s adaptation has an experimental rather than classical narrative form, replacing the traditional three-act structure with a five-act one, each movement deliberately colour-coded by Minnelli and his crew.

The remaining extra on this disc is the original theatrical trailer. Clearly the product of another age, it comprises lengthy extracts from key scenes rather than teasing extracts, and as such contains potential spoilers for those unfamiliar with Van Gogh’s life story. The trailer runs 3:02 and is in anamorphic 2.40:1.

Intelligently written, made with conviction and crowned by two passionately intense performances, Lust for Life is a key film of the mid 1950s. Warner’s DVD will be good enough for most people, but it’s not quite at the peak of what the format is capable of.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 06:19:01

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