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Van Gogh: Brush with Genius DVD Review

Van Gogh: Brush With Genius movie poster Van Gogh: Brush With Genius (Moi, Van Gogh)

French Theatrical Release: March 25, 2009 / Running Time: 39 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: François Bertrand / Writers: François Bertrand (screenplay), Marie Sellier (screenplay & dialogue), Peter Knapp (original idea)

Cast: Jacques Gamblin (Van Gogh voice), Hélène Seuzaret (Ellen Baqueris), Peter Knapp (Himself)

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I can currently think of just one thing that all IMAX movies have in common. It's not runtime; the IMAX standard used to be about 40 minutes, but now it's easy to find feature-length films exhibited. It's not the big screen; smaller IMAX screens have cropped up to some concern and the disparaging nicknames LIEMAX and Fake Imax.
It's not even the high-resolution film footage; upconversions from standard 35 mm film happen all the time. The one thing that all IMAX movies have in common is that they lose some of their power when they come to home video.

To its advantage, not many people will feel that loss on Van Gogh: Brush with Genius. The unfortunate explanation for that is though created for IMAX exhibition, this French documentary hasn't been seen by many people. Or so it seems. I can find current showtimes in museums and science centers in New Jersey, Iowa, and British Columbia, but no official release date or box office record. While transitioning from being several stories high to somewhere in the neighborhood of 42 inches, the film also has the challenge of getting discovered on DVD and Blu-ray without having received a very wide release, even by large format niche standards.

Of course, Brush with Genius is a documentary and a 39-minute one at that, so it was never destined to become the sleeper hit of the season, whatever season that might be. In France, where it is called Moi, Van Gogh (that's Me, Van Gogh, in case you were stumped), the film opened on March 25, 2009. Before that, it debuted at New York's Lincoln Square Theater in September 2008.

Contemporary museumgoers observe Van Gogh self-portraits in interesting time-lapse footage. You can't make a Van Gogh film without some Van Gogh art. "The Siesta" is one of more than forty paintings featured in "Brush With Genius."

The writing and directing debut of short and documentary producer François Bertrand, Brush with Genius gives us Vincent Van Gogh's story in his own words, or rather what his words might be. The film has plenty of them at its disposal; over the years, the Dutch painter sent over 900 letters to his younger brother Theo and we hear bits of several of them. But the main narration is an invented spectral Van Gogh (Jacques Gamblin), who comments on people's view of him today and his mindset during his 37 years on Earth.

This posthumous Van Gogh identifies two of his fans who appreciate not merely the legend but the art itself: a Van Gogh Museum researcher (portrayed by Hélène Seuzaret), who closely studies his sketches and correspondences (even the crossed-out bits); and filmmaker Peter Knapp, who is supposedly shooting his story (and in reality receives a concept credit here).

Van Gogh discusses his propensity for productivity, proudly spouting off some statistics of his accomplishments (400 paintings in four years, 80 in his final sixty days), despite selling almost none in life. He talks of his exciting collaboration with Frenchman Paul Gauguin, his fellow Post-Impressionist painter. And, yes, he touches upon the scintillating subject matter that is one of the biggest parts of his legacy: his battle with mental illness. He explains and rationalizes the infamous ear-severing incident (blaming it on overindulgence in wine) and his ultimate end, shooting himself in the chest in a field (an act he survived for two days). The Van Gogh narrating this film doesn't seem depressed at all, but rather passionate and somewhat playful. His reasons for spending a year in a mental hospital are that it was cheap and liberating.

French actress Hélène Seuzaret portrays a Van Gogh-approved museum curator perusing the artist's letters and work. The film tries to find the exact location and angle from which Van Gogh would have painted some of his famous outdoor scenes.

The imagined present-day narration is one of the film's most striking features, but this is a film and an IMAX film at that, so it's fair to ask: what do we get in the way of visuals? Naturally, we get some of Van Gogh's paintings, over forty of them,
some shot at such a close range and with selective focus as to immerse you in them. The landscapes he painted are located and shown for comparison's sake. There is also some stimulating time-lapse photography of his art being observed in museums and footage of French locales that became part of his final years.

I'm certainly no art historian, but to me, Brush with Genius seems to do a nice job of providing an overview of Van Gogh's life and work. It informs and imagines, the latter interpretation being a poignant way of expressing the immortality of an artist. There is only so much a film can do running just 39 minutes with credits, but this one has clear goals that it tidily meets, obviously not overstaying its welcome but also not leaving us wanting more. The original images, depictions of artwork, and (believe it or not) sounds all grant this documentary a vitality and spirit that should be appreciated even by those who do not enter with lofty opinions towards Post-Impressionism and Van Gogh.

Van Gogh: Brush with Genius DVD cover art -- click to buy DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Japanese, Spanish)
Subtitles: None; Not Closed Captioned
Release Date: November 2, 2010
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.98
Black Eco-Friendly Keepcase
Also available on Blu-ray Disc ($24.98 SRP)


Van Gogh: Brush with Genius delivers some truly stunning images in the most satisfying of ways. Obviously, with disc compression not a concern, there being little in the way of demanding action and the film having been shot at IMAX's high resolution, the odds were that this would look good. But the DVD's 1.78:1 widescreen transfer is better than good. It's outstanding.

As is the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. You might think that a documentary on a visual artist who died over a hundred years ago wouldn't lend itself to the most interesting audio. In fact, the rich, crisp Van Gogh narration is nicely complemented by a potent score by Armand Amar and a surprising amount of atmosphere, from ambient outdoor noises to engulfing pencil and brush strokes. It's all done with tact and presented with nary a shortcoming.

Well, almost nary. The film is provided with four language options (English, French, Japanese, and Spanish), but no subtitles. That not only would have enabled us to get something closer to the original French version of the film, but also might have clarified some phrases uttered by the thickly-accented Jacques Gamblin. To boot, it's not even closed captioned.

The Behind the Scenes featurette shows us the filming of real, rarely-opened Van Gogh sketches carefully held by the real Van Gogh Museum curator in place of actress Hélène Seuzaret. Turn your TV into a looped Van Gogh exhibition (displaying such images as "Starry Night Over the Rhone") with the Van Gogh's art slideshow.


The main bonus feature is "Behind the Scenes" (19:27). Despite the unimaginative title, this is a solid making-of featurette

that gathers insightful comments from the likes of director François Bertrand, co-author Marie Sellier, composer Armand Amar, and director of photography Vincent Mathias. They cover nearly all the ground you'd want them to, sharing information on the film's conception, visuals, score, and access to Van Gogh's artwork. It's a perfectly sufficient companion piece which uses subtitles to translate the words of crew members speaking in French.

Next, "Van Gogh's art" is simply a slideshow of some of the artist's paintings set to an excerpt of Armand Amar's score. You have the choice to watch the 4-minute, 15-second montage once or loop it for eternity.

Finally, unmentioned on the case, there is a Trailers page more substantial and useful than anyone unfamiliar with MacGillivray Freeman DVDs would expect. It holds theatrical previews for thirteen of the company's IMAX films, running 20 minutes and 39 seconds with an essential Play All option. All are impressively presented in 16:9 and Dolby 5.1. Promoted here, many with big-name narrators and pop music acts: The Alps, Coral Reef Adventure, Dolphins, Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag, Hurricane on the Bayou, Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk, Greece: Secrets of the Past, Journey into Amazing Caves, The Living Sea, The Magic of Flight, Mystery of the Nile, Super Speedway, and Volcanoes of the Deep Sea. With this lot, you're able to turn your home into a tiny IMAX theater that only does trailers. Sadly and strangely, a trailer for Brush of Genius is nowhere to be found.

The menu screens prominently showcase Van Gogh artwork, with the main page being the only one animated and scored.

"Van Gogh: Brush With Genius" opens and closes with the artist's familiar 1889 Saint-Rémy self-portrait, the image carrying more weight at the film's end.


Watching a documentary on a subject I know very little about always gives me some pause in assessing it. But purely as a not quite feature-length piece of filmmaking, I found Van Gogh: Brush with Genius to be lively and endearing, with wonderful images and sounds befitting of its subject. While it was meant for large format exhibition, the movie has no trouble being enjoyed on a television, where its powerful photography and soundtrack still impress in spades, with home video not appearing to be an afterthought. The runtime prohibits covering every facet of Van Gogh's life and art, but the film makes the most of what it has.

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Reviewed November 3, 2010.

Text copyright 2010 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2009 Big Picture Digital Productions, MacGillivray Freeman Films, Camera lucida Productions, Les productions de la Géode,
and 2010 Image Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.