By Preston Wilder
Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life. Martin Scorsese in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. The crows. The sunflowers. The bandaged ear. “Starry, starry night.” The man whose paintings now sell for millions – yet who only sold one painting in his own, brief lifetime. Our knowledge of Vincent Van Gogh is likely to be fragmentary, made up of vivid bits and pieces – unless we’re, say, the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, one of many organisations whose logo appears at the start of Loving Vincent – yet even the most casual art-lover will instantly recognise his bold, rather frantic post-Impressionist brushstrokes, and even those unfamiliar with the work will know of his tragic life and early death. Indeed, Van Gogh is one of those cases where his death in 1890 – of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound, at the age of 37 – can truly be said to have been his best career move.
That death forms the starting point of Loving Vincent, an animated biography that feels like a teaching aid (albeit an unusually creative teaching aid) designed for museum exhibition. VVG’s death, it turns out, was as fraught as his life, the film’s conceit being that Armand Roulin is tasked by his father, the postmaster Joseph, to deliver a letter that Van Gogh – who’s now been dead for a year – wrote to his brother Theo. The resulting structure is Citizen Kane-like, Roulin trying to solve the mystery of how Vincent died and interviewing those who knew the late artist, neatly reflecting our own experience of Van Gogh. We too know him only posthumously, and can only try to understand him through the accounts of those who knew him – and, of course, through his paintings.
That’s the other, more poetic part of the gimmick here – because Roulin, his postmaster father and all the people he meets are all subjects from Van Gogh paintings, the actors done up to look like the artworks (the end credits catalogue who’s who); there are even shots recreating the actual paintings, thus for instance Dr. Gachet (Jerome Flynn) reclines in the exact pose, and with the precise expression, as in Portrait of Dr. Gachet, sold at auction for $82.5 million in 1990. This is part of the film’s didactic, museum-exhibit approach – yet there’s also a more poignant aspect. The title comes from Van Gogh’s affectionate sign-off in his letters to Theo (“your loving Vincent”), but of course it could also be taken as a gerund: it’s almost as though these people – these unsuspecting subjects, many of whom wanted nothing to do with Van Gogh when he was alive – are all ‘loving Vincent’, lining up to pay tribute to the man who gave them immortality.
The film itself looks like a painting, its shimmering images sporting Van Gogh’s bold colours and trademark lines (the black-and-white flashbacks are more sedate). An opening caption informs us it was “entirely hand-painted” by a team of over 100 artists – though clearly not painted from scratch, scenes with the actors having been filmed conventionally then rendered from photo to paint. It looks impressive, though the visual punch fades pretty rapidly (once you’ve marvelled at the fact that it painstakingly copies late-period Van Gogh, there’s not much else to marvel at) – and the central mystery, too, turns into a bit of a slog as the film goes on.
The larger point, that genius is essentially unknowable, is well taken. Roulin, a quarrelsome young man who’s unafraid to keep prodding, finds out much about Van Gogh, yet his subject remains obscure. An innkeeper’s daughter in Auvers (the French town where he spent his last days) recalls Vincent as “a nice quiet man”. Gachet’s housekeeper reckons he was “evil”. A boatman recalls the painter’s loneliness. We learn that he suffered from low self-esteem (he only turned to painting at 28, after a lifetime of failures), that he was shy around women, that he painted every day from eight till five, “puffing like a steam engine”. Conflicting accounts add to the mystery – but the rhythm gets monotonous, Roulin going to one person after another, eliciting a flashback and adding another tidbit. Long before the end, the film has become a little dry.
“Things only got strange when that friend of his, Gauguin, came,” goes a line of dialogue, highlighting yet another caveat – viz. that the script struggles to match the artistry contained in the visuals. Still, Loving Vincent is the kind of film we don’t often get in Cyprus cinemas (it opens at the Pantheon on Thursday) and the kind of film that’s not often made, full stop, being a labour of love that took years to bring to fruition. I admit the end credits got to me, showcasing Van Gogh’s brilliant legacy to the strains (inevitably) of Don McLean’s melancholy ‘Vincent’, the “starry, starry night” song. Ultimately, any account of Van Gogh’s life – or even death – is unimportant. The art speaks for itself.
DIRECTED BY Dorota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman
UK/Poland 2017 94 mins.