Haggard, exhausted and on the verge of wasting away, the Vincent Van Gogh of Maurice Pialat's biopic is more of a ragged tramp than a great master. Picking up Van Gogh's life story in the months before he committed suicide in 1890, Pialat avoids all the usual ear-slicing mythmaking in favour of a portrait of the artist as a melancholic old man.
Unlike other, more famous, Van Gogh movies, Pialat spends remarkably little time watching the artist at work. Instead, he charts his antagonistic relationships with those around him, including his art dealer brother Theo (Bernard Lecoq), kindly patron Dr Gachet (Gérard Séty) and Gachet's daughter, Marguerite (Alexandra London), who falls for the painter's unbalanced charms.
On the few occasions that Pialat contrives to let us watch the artist at his easel, Jacques Dutronc's phenomenal intensity comes to the fore. He wrestles with each stroke of the brush, beating the paint into submission with bestial ferocity, before dismissively abandoning each canvas as "smudges that will never be worth a cent".
The actor discovers a tragic irony underlying Van Gogh's sense of overwhelming failure as, surrounded by cowards and weaklings too afraid or stupid to admit to his greatness, he hounds himself towards the inevitable end, destroying everything in his wake and little realising the importance of his work.
What makes "Van Gogh" so remarkable, though, is Pialat and Dutronc's refusal to fit this suicidal descent into the usual rhythms of the biopic. Conjuring a performance that's constantly full of surprises, Dutronc flirts with his character's despair, swinging from depression to elation with bewildering speed.
It's a performance that makes "Van Gogh" worthy of being called a masterpiece in its own right.