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Dec 05 2016

The Furniture: Design Inspires Van Gogh in Lust for Life

"The Furniture"is our weekly series on Production Design.Here'sDaniel Walber...

Kirk Douglas nearly drove himself over the edge while filmingLust for Life,inhabiting the character of Vincent van Gogh with a tenacity akin to the Method.The result was an Oscar nomination,likely the closest he ever came to a win.His emotionally volatile performance lends real weight to the oft-sensationalized biography of history's most famously mad artist.

But the success ofLust for Lifeisn't owed entirely to Douglas.Director Vincente Minnelli was a perfect match for the material,which necessitates a balance between the beauty that Van Gogh saw in the world and the feverish passion that drove him away from it.The Oscar-nominated production design team,led by frequent Minnelli collaborator Cedric Gibbons,offer a rich vision of the French countryside that serves as an essential counterpoint to Douglas's madness.

Douglas's Van Gogh is a man who has tremendous feelings but no socially acceptable way to express them.This pent up energy manifests in his shouts and body language,but it also dominates Russell Harlan's cinematography.Here's the most obvious example,a moment of deep emotion that causes a canal to fall out of focus and thus resemble "Starry Night".

The designers counterbalance the more flamboyant outbursts of Harlan and Douglas.They present Van Gogh's paintings as true to life,as much the result of his artistic spirit as the self-evident charm of his real surroundings.Some sets are near-exact copies,like his famous bedroom at Arles.

There are also replicas of his paintings,in various states of completion.These carefully detailed decorations may very well be the primary reason that the film's design was recognized by the Academy.

Yet I'd argue the real triumph of the design team is in the subtler details.Between his sensational life story and the fantastical mood of his late masterpieces,it can be easy to forget that he painted many scenes of labor and nearly 100 still lifes.Gibbons and his team reconstruct many of these tableaux,paying tribute to Van Gogh's own precision.

Other props add an earthy context to his peasant portraits.Van Gogh's real depiction of this woman consists only of her face and her enormous white hat,but Gibbons et al expand upon her smile with a large bowl of potatoes.

Minnelli frequently cuts from a reenactment and to a still image of the actual painting,but not always.Sometimes the reference is much more oblique,like this pile of books that calls to mind one of Van Gogh's earliest works.

These references accumulate,to the point that props suggest artistic inspiration in nearly every shot.Fruits and flowers often draw the eye.This picnic,for example,would make an excellent still life.

Here,Paul Gauguin (Anthony Quinn) stands at the wall,pontificating about his artistic ideals.To the left is a shelf of unmixed paints,bright colors that would themselves be an excellent subject for a painting.Behind him is a wall of direct inspiration,an assortment of predominantly Japanese prints.Like many of the real artworks displayed inLust for Life,they are clustered together with almost haphazard grace,suggesting a still life made up of portraits.

Gibbons and his team fill many a set with works of art.Every apartment or house in which Van Gogh lives is practically wallpapered with his own compositions.His artist cousin lives in a similar condition,and his art dealer brother is always surrounded by his trade.

These sensory overloads are at the apex of a sort of production design loop.First,the small beauties of nature and peasant life emerge as subtle subjects in the background.Then the artist paints them,and so they graduate to the central focus of a shot.Van Gogh paints so many that these works collect on the walls and the floor,eventually becoming another artistic backdrop.And so they inspire him anew,kicking off a yet more fruitful burst of inspiration.It is a process more delicate than any trick of focus or framing,yet simultaneously more glorious.

previously on The Furniture

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Reader Comments (6)

An absolutely beautiful movie.Van Gogh in person would have loved.Ok,Yul Brynner,but Kirk Douglas' performance is from outer space.

December 5,2016 | Unregistered CommenterIngrid_Essex

Thanks for this write-up.A very good film.And I agree with Ingrid_Essex: good though Brynner was in The King and I,Douglas should have won the Oscar.

Also,have you seen the 1991 film Van Gogh starring Jacques Dutronc?In its own way,it's just as remarkable - and so is Dutronc.

December 5,2016 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

I wld rather Douglas win more than Brynner.He had won both the NYFCC n GG n it mus hav been a close race.

Lust for Life is his career best n sadly his last nom.

Quinn's win,his 2nd in this cat,is more duely due to Oscar spillover luv for Fellini's La Strata,the foreign pic winner o tt year.

December 5,2016 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

Claran: I suspect you're right about Quinn - but I do think he's very good in the film and a worthy winner.

December 5,2016 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

I have never seen a Minnelli film that was not beautifully painted,but this one is special.

December 6,2016 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie19

Minelli was also unfairly snub of a nom by the Oscars,亚博主页althot he did manage to be nom by GG & DGA

December 23,2016 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

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