Van Gogh: Brush With Genius

A documentary by Franí§ois Bertrand and Peter Knapp. Rated G. Opens Friday, March 13, at the Omnimax Theatre

Vincent Van Gogh is a surprising subject for an IMAX film, and not just because of the madness, suicide, and severed ear. Fine art is so far from the usual natural-science fare that it demands drastically different treatment than your average giant-screen ode to sea creatures or dinosaurs.

Watch the trailer for Van Gogh: Brush With Genius.

At least Van Gogh: Brush With Genius filmmakers Franí§ois Bertrand and Peter Knapp make an ambitious attempt to create a new, more artful kind of IMAX movie. But the results are mixed.

While following the chronological progression of the postimpressionist’s paintings and the real scenery that inspired them, they’ve tried to tear down the fourth wall and twist the perspective. A dead Van Gogh narrates from on high, following director Knapp on his shoots and visiting a researcher (or, rather, an actor playing a researcher) looking through his old letters and sketches.

Using the imagined voice of Van Gogh is a risk that doesn’t always pay off; listening to the famously tormented artist make quips like “I find that women find me much more interesting since I died” is cringe-inducing. It does work unexpectedly well, however, when he is speaking directly about his paintings: his obsession with using intense yellow notes “until everything flickered”, or explicating the moody colour choices behind one of his last paintings, Daubigny’s Garden.

Seeing the thick, expressive flicks and curls of his brushwork magnified across that IMAX screen is the film’s big draw. In one gorgeous scene, we see Arles’s real Café Van Gogh edited with his sprawling Café Terrace at Night, and the troubled skies of Wheatfield With Crows is followed by an endless sea of wheat, the kind he might have gone to the day he shot himself.

Ultimately, Van Gogh’s art history is stronger than its psychology. Knapp and Bertrand paint their subject as more of a lonely workaholic than a madman, reassuring us that he only stayed in that asylum because it was cheaper than room and board, and he just cut a “little bit” off his ear. You get more of a sense for Van Gogh’s real torment staring down the wild, icy eyes of that famous self-portrait—amplified across the five-storey screen—than anywhere else in the film.