The uncompromising nature of Vincent Van Gogh’s oeuvre bows to the kid-friendly demands of Imax in the ambitious but overly whimsical Gallic production “Van Gogh: Brush With Genius.” Filmmakers Francois Bertrand and Peter Knapp, working closely with curators and researchers, fluidly transpose their knowledge and artistic appreciation onto a panoply of gorgeous, bigger-than-life images. Unfortunately, these behind-the-scenes personages frequently appear in front of the camera in “making-of” mode, while a ghostly voiceover supplies supposedly present-tense commentary by Van Gogh himself, presumably following the filmmakers from on high and benevolently approving the production. Docu is skedded to open Feb. 2 worldwide.
Docu reimagines Van Gogh as a driven workaholic, a theory supported by the huge number of paintings he churned out in his last two years, and by the burning concentration revealed in his read-aloud letters to brother Theo. But as much as one can applaud the desire to undercut the usual vision of whirlpools of madness in every swirl of the brush, the attempt to make Van Gogh a regular guy, who only cut off “a little bit” of his ear, rings hollow.
Docu tends to highlight the vertical and horizontal sweep of the paintings over the signature concentric circles that suck the viewer into unplumbed depths. This approach pays off strikingly when the filmmakers venture into the South of France to match the locations that figure prominently in Van Gogh’s paintings: The comparison between the painted and celluloid-caught landscapes becomes truly breathtaking in Imax, with Van Gogh’s voice, no longer in chipper contempo mode, expounding on the height of the horizon line and the centrality of the sun.
Imax proves less successful in conveying the radical quality of his late work, however, coming in a distant second to that Hollywood Vincente, Minnelli, in capturing (in “Lust for Life”) the almost unbearable intensity of the creation and its creator.
Imax’s weakness for turning every shoot into a scientific excursion, detailing the process of making the film itself, seems particularly ill suited here: Watching an actress playing a researcher reading Van Gogh’s letters in a modern museum office smacks of anticlimax after full-screen treatments of “Wheat Field With Crows” and “Irises.” Van Gogh’s voiceover seal of approval (“I like her”) only adds insult to inanity.
One wishes the form were less inflexible and less perkily “educational,” allowing viewers the luxury of basking under the mesmerizing spell of the sun-struck tableaux, transfixed to the giant screen.