Excerpt: ‘The Loneliest Heart’, by Rebecca Harkins-Cross

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Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1887. The Detroit Institute of Arts.


In Paul Cox’s Vincent (1987), he makes a cameo in the final moments as a mourner laying sunflowers on Van Gogh’s coffin. The film itself is his extended eulogy, an experimental docufiction that sets scenes from rural Holland and artworks from the prolific painter’s canon against an increasingly agonised narration of Vincent’s letters to his younger brother, Theo. Cox has long expressed his affinity with the tortured artist par excellence, a kindred spirit. Cox sees himself as the unsung outsider, prepared to sacrifice everything to the Gods of artistic creation.

Cox has long expressed his affinity with the tortured artist par excellence, a kindred spirit.

That arch-critic David Stratton heralds Cox as “perhaps Australia’s only auteur”—a sentiment echoed by his many admirers, who’ve also called him our answer to Ingmar Bergman—doesn’t quite fit with this self-image.

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What Van Gogh encapsulates is the Romantic ideal to which the director aspires. He is the “true artist”, as Cox describes him in his 1998 memoir Reflections: tormented genius, visionary outsider, slave to amour fou. Is it really love if you’re not prepared to relinquish your ear in the pursuit? Van Gogh also represents the ideal of a capitalisation-worthy Art, yet in Australia such an artist is at odds with a philistine culture. These figures appear in different incarnations across Cox’s cinema; lonely men (and they are always men) who are driven to isolation by their great passions.

Cox is a definite outlier in the history of Australian film.

Cox is a definite outlier in the history of Australian film. Now seventy-five years old, the elder statesman has produced one of the largest bodies of work of any director working here: nineteen feature films and twelve documentaries, as well as shorts and television projects, which together amount to a remarkably coherent oeuvre. The ordination of ‘auteur’ is well earned. Cox is obsessive about his recurring concerns—art, love, exile, loneliness, spirituality and obsession itself—and the way in which he figures them. It’s a particular feat in a local industry renowned for one-hit wonders and pushing its talents overseas. The Dutch-born director made the journey in reverse, visiting Australia in his twenties on a temporary immigration program designed to promote the country internationally and, eventually, making Australia his home.


This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #28: The Art Issue. Get your copy here.

Rebecca Harkins-Cross is is a Melbourne-based writer and critic. She is the film editor at The Big Issue and a PhD candidate.