Pick of the Week: Loving Vincent
Loving Vincent's dazzling visual achievements make this Van Gogh biopic well worth seeking out - even if its narrative is far less effectively composed. The painted animation film - the first of its kind - explores the life and unusual death of Vincent Van Gogh, painstakingly incorporating his artworks within its storyboard.
Vibrant, oil painted colours swirl around on their newfound canvas, the screen. They morph into a mesmerising sequence that teeters between dreams and reality. But that is just what Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings create - an intangible space which allows the observer to drift, dreaming in the midst of a perfectly natural scene, for the subject of most of his paintings was nature itself.
‘No detail of life was too small or too humble for him. He appreciated and loved it all.’ This line sums up not only Van Gogh’s artistic endeavours but also the tapestry of his life, interwoven with his most famous paintings to create the exquisite film, Loving Vincent. The world’s first completely hand painted animated feature film, it took six years, 125 oil painters, and 62,450 paintings to bring directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s labour of love and tribute to one of the greatest artists of all time, to life.
The film is built around the year after Van Gogh died from a supposedly self-inflicted gunshot wound. Armand Roulin, the son of postmaster Roulin, is sent by his father to deliver Vincent’s final letter to his brother and closest confidant, Theo. When Armand learns that Theo has also died, only 6 months after Vincent, he is moved and propelled into learning the truth behind Vincent’s death, by speaking to the people who were around the artist in his final weeks. On the first leg of his travels, he meets Pere Tanguy, a Montmarte art supplier who provides paints to almost every artist in Paris at the time, including Van Gogh. Tanguy tells him about Theo’s death and Vincent’s time in the city, where he was largely deemed by society as an ‘unemployable failure’. Next, Armand goes off to interrogate everyone who spent time with Vincent in Auvers-sur-Oise, his final resting place - from Adeline Ravoux, the daughter of the innkeeper at whose establishment Vincent rents a room, to Dr Paul Gachet and his daughter Marguerite, who eventually became like family to the troubled painter.
As Armand proceeds, a portrait of Vincent, through the kind words of his friends and the unkind words of society, slowly begins to emerge. Each witness offers a different account of him however, leaving viewers to make up their own minds on whether Van Gogh really took his life. Ultimately, we are still left wondering about his death, an invitation into the wormhole of ‘what-if’s’. What if Vincent hadn’t committed suicide? What if he hadn’t died early? What if he had once again slipped into the barrel of melancholy? We don’t find out and probably never will. But the film does paint a provocative portrait of the artist’s life. Just like Armand Roulin, we go from viewing Vincent as a one-dimensional human: a social misfit prone to bouts of depression, to a man of great depth and empathy, possessing a special talent for being able to express thoughts from the deepest recesses of his soul, onto canvas.
The unique visual language of Loving Vincent is definitely the film’s highlight - it is a visual treat, especially for Van Gogh lovers, to watch his paintings come alive. Van Gogh’s re-imagination of French Impressionism and his trademark gruff brushstrokes also provide the perfect fodder for it. In its storyboard the filmmakers have incorporated 120 out of the 800 oil paintings that Vincent painted over the course of just one decade. They have also used a mix of animation techniques including rotoscoping, shooting a live action cast against a green screen and then editing in the paintings as scene backgrounds. Finally, they invited “pure oil painters” to paint over each image in order to stay true to Van Gogh’s style. In addition, the filmmakers also created newly painted black and white scenes, referenced from photographs of that period, to show flashbacks and the parts of Van Gogh’s life that don’t exist as his own paintings. This results in a soothing, personal yet electric account of an event that would otherwise drive a viewer to tears. It feels as if Van Gogh himself is painting you into his life.
No artist is understood completely only through biographical accounts of their life, their life is hidden within their creations. Loving Vincent, a painstakingly hand painted film for one of the medium’s most gifted and prolific creators, captures this in its very essence. And despite deep diving into the lonely recesses of his mind in which Van Gogh often found himself, the film colours them in broad brushstrokes with the humanity that also lay in Vincent till the end of his days, which never died because of his kind heart and quiet, observant spirit and which, through this art continues to comfort troubled minds and assure tormented souls of the beauty of life.
Vincent Van Gogh has been the subject of great introspection and discussion amidst art lovers; the mystery surrounding his death, the brilliance of his paintings as well as his turbulent mind, oscillating between creativity and crippling bouts of despair (like the one in which he cut off his own ear), all make for a fascinating portrait of a misunderstood artist, far ahead of his time. Loving Vincent brings to life his detached melancholy, and his yearning to make something of himself in society, expressed to his brother in his earliest letters. And while the story telling does feel clunky in some places and the dialogue at times a distraction from becoming completely immersed in the serene spectacle of Van Gogh’s work, there’s no doubt that Loving Vincent is a most intricately symbiotic homage to the Dutch master and his oeuvre. A soothing watch for those wanting to understand the labour of creativity.
Available on Amazon Prime. The film received nominations for Best Animated Feature at both the 2017 Academy Awards and the Golden Globes. It also won the Audience Award at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival.