Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, new each Friday.
Note: Nosh 136 will appear on Friday, Jan. 4. Holiday cheers!
APPETIZER: Reviews of At Eternity’s Gate and The Favourite
In an oddly spectacular career, Willem Dafoe was film’s best Jesus (in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ), and a startling Satan (in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist). His earnest humanity as motel manager Bobby, in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, was so far from his demonic Bobby Peru in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate treats, as the title suggests, Vincent Van Gogh (Dafoe) as modern art’s most heroic, sacrificial genius. In an asylum discussion with a worried priest (Mads Mikkelsen), ex-preacher Vincent offers his rough-hewn gospel of pantheist art: “To me God is nature, and nature is beauty.” That testament will, for many in our fractious world, suffice.
The story concerns Vincent’s last years, so productive even as his mind fell apart. Schnabel, a painter whose thick impasto rivals Vincent’s, piles on his reverence a bit thickly, using some lens distortion to underscore emotions, but also makes some classy choices (like avoiding the melodrama of the famous ear-slashing by exploring the pathos of motivation). He doesn’t over-sell the famous landscapes and sites in Arles, France, where the Dutchman found painterly heaven and social hell, abandoned even by Paul Gauguin. Schnabel lets the pictures, and Dafoe’s life-mapped face and sincere voice, deliver the goods. Rather pointless is the rant of a mad inmate at the St. Remy asylum (for that to work, we’d need Goya behind the camera).
For me, every artist film echoes the painterly trio of my late childhood: Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (with Kirk Douglas’s Vincent, very brave work for a macho star), John Huston’s Moulin Rouge (José Ferrer as sardonic Toulouse-Lautrec) and Ronald Neame’s The Horse’s Mouth (Alec Guinness amazing as painter-rascal Gulley Jimson). But Dafoe and Schnabel (Before Night Falls, Basquiat) do one thing better than those. They provide a persistent, fascinating sense of Vincent’s work, a driven process of exploration and redemption (removing old boots, and revealing toe-less socks, he then paints the boots). Van Gogh, a late bloomer in art, explosively extruded himself onto canvas. His passionate, vulnerable hunger for truth empowers this movie, which may have too many words but often has good ones (mostly from Vincent’s letters).
Valuable are Oscar Isaac as Gauguin (if not with Anthony Quinn’s fierce virility in Lust for Life) and Rupert Friend as Vincent’s ever-loving brother, Theo. Dafoe’s open, earthy visage expresses the angels of Vincent’s artistic mission, and the demons of his tormented mind. Once more the actor carries a big cross, to another kind of immortality.
On the IMDB info site, the “Plot Keywords” for The Favourite are lesbian, lesbian sex, lesbian kiss, female nudity and gay interest. None of that keeps Yorgos Lanthimos’s lavish history dramedy from seeming rather pointless. I did feel the pathos of England’s Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) loving her royal rabbits, her compensation for having lost 17 children. The bunny queen is herself a sad child, a food pig and a raging ninny, hobbled by gout. The last Stuart monarch (1702-1714) had Britain’s greatest general, John Churchill, who became the first Duke of Marlborough after crushing the French, but he is barely seen, like the vapor of a Marlboro man.
Instead, plenty of big tapestries, bird shooting, ludicrous dancing, beatings, the pelting of a fat, nude man with oranges, and all those lesbian yummies. Rachel Weisz is Sarah, bossy royal favorite (oops, favourite) or, in today’s gracious argot, stone-cold power bitch. Her upstart rival is kitchen maid turned Machiavellian sex kitten Abigail (Emma Stone). Both please Anne in hidden, lustful ways, while men peacock around under vast wigs of curled hair. The split music score (18th century palace baroque, plus modern “ironic” percussion) is matched by dialog like “Anyway, think on it. No pressure” (first part dimly Old England, second part definitely not). Fisheye lenses puff the big rooms and gaudy, ponderous rituals. Far too lacking is the jolly fun of Tom Jones (1963), although Tom’s fun hardly deserved four Oscars.
SALAD (A List)
Remarkable Films About Famous Painters
In order of arrival, with their star:
In order of arrival, with their star:
Rembrandt (1936, Charles Laughton as Rembrandt van Rijn), Moulin Rouge (1953, José Ferrer as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec), La Mystere Picasso (1956, Pablo Picasso as himself), Lust for Life (1956, Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh), Andrei Rublev (1966, Anatoli Solonitsyn as Rublev), Edvard Munch (1974, Geir Westby as Munch), Oviri: Wolf at the Door (1986, Donald Sutherland as Paul Gauguin), Vincent & Theo (1990, Tim Roth as Vincent van Gogh), Basquiat (1996, Jeffrey Wright as Jean-Michel Basquiat), Goya in Bordeaux (1999, Francisco Rabal as Francisco Goya), Pollock (2000, Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock), Frida (2002, Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo), Mr. Turner (2014, Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner).
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
A pretty fair painter himself, Orson Welles put art at the center of his late-career essay film F for Fake, a witty doodle-fest about magic, fraud, art mania and impish master forger Elmyr de Hory. “Every true artist,” Welles remarked, “must, in his own way, be a magician, a charlatan. Picasso once said he could paint fake Picassos as well as anybody, and someone like Picasso could say something like that and gets away with it. But an Elymr de Hory? Elmyr is a profound embarrassment to the art world, a man of talent making monkeys out of those who have disappointed him (by never liking his ‘original’ art).” (Quote from Frank Brady’s Citizen Welles.)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“Writer Ian Christie called Alec Guinness’s painter Gulley Jimson ‘one of the few authentic artist characters in British or any other cinema’ … The scamp Jimson is soul-fraternal with Van Gogh, who confided to his brother Theo, ‘Who am I in the eyes of most people? A nonentity or an oddity or a disagreeable person,’ but then added with Jimsonian fortitude that ‘through my work I’d like to show what there is in the heart of such an oddity, such a nobody.” (From the Alec Guinness/The Horse’s Mouth chapter of my book Starlight Rising, available via Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)
DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
As shadows loom, Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas) paints his last landscape in Lust for Life (MGM, 1956; director Vincente Minnelli, photography by Russell Harlan, Freddie Young).
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