It is not an exaggeration to say that the spirit of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings has been infused into every frame of Loving Vincent, a celebration of the artist’s distinctive impasto style. In this sort-of biopic, sort-of detective story there are 65,000 frames in total, each hand painted – marking the world’s first fully-painted feature film. It looks unquestionably beautiful: an oily mess of splotchy colours and dribbling images, with an oozing quality that makes each scene feel like it is melting into the next.
The approach (from co-directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman) reminded me of digital rotoscoping, the animation technique filmmaker Richard Linklater deployed in two movies: the philosophy-of consciousness rumination-fest Waking Life, and his adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. In these films there is always a sense of motion. Even – sometimes especially – when the frame is still. Bits of the screen sprout and blossom, as if in a constant state of evolution.
The painstaking aesthetic of Loving Vincent (which was in production for seven years) incorporates nearly 130 of van Gogh’s paintings, deployed like Easter eggs for aficionados.
As in Waking Life, the protagonist of Loving Vincent, Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) is a meandering tour guide connecting bits of this dribbling, beautiful world together, while absorbing various perspectives of the humans inhabiting it. Based a year after van Gogh’s death, Armand has been tasked, by his bushy-bearded, postmaster father (Chris O’Dowd) to deliver a letter the late artist wrote to his brother Theo, not knowing that Theo is dead.
Armand travels from Paris to Auvers-sir-Oise, the French town where van Gogh died. He becomes obsessed with details of the artist’s death (at age 37). They initially seem obvious: suicide by gun wound. Armand senses holes in the official story, however, and among other things asks why a suicidal man would shoot themselves in the stomach – not the head – and how a mortally wounded person could walk through a field. This has a timely-ish hook, with a 2011 book speculating that foul play may have been involved in van Gogh’s journey to that great big, post-impressionist art exhibition in the sky.
With many details lost to the past, and the legacy of van Gogh’s art well and truly eclipsing any elements of his personal life (including his famous act of ear-hacking), this at times feels like an exercise with limited value. The nail is hit on the head by Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan) when she responds to one of Armand’s theories by saying: “So, lonely Vincent resorts to hanging around with drunken teenagers and he gets shot, or he shoots himself in despair at his lonely life? The result is the same.”
It is a fitting, albeit perhaps unintentional moment of self-analysis for this captivating but somewhat wanting film. The directors, however, revert to detective story mode in the very next scene, as if that comment were never made or had no relevance.
Loving Vincent’s structure does, however, compellingly connect slabs of morose reflection – on van Gogh’s death and the nature of the artist himself – from various characters whose attitudes towards him say much about themselves. The postmaster pities a man who was mentally ill, for example, while a churchgoer gets enraged at the thought somebody might shoot themselves on a Sunday.
The tone is mystery and celebration, in a surreal and vaguely wake-like context, similar in this sense to the Australian documentary Ecco Homo, which investigated the strange life of Melbourne artist Troy Davies. The painstaking aesthetic of Loving Vincent (which was in production for seven years) incorporates nearly 130 of van Gogh’s paintings, deployed like Easter eggs for aficionados.
They are extrapolated upon in various ways. We venture inside van Gogh’s bedroom, for example (the design of it inspired by Bedroom in Arles) and experience the Cafe Terrace at Night. The filmmakers insert Armand and his father into the latter location. This could be interpreted as heresy for van Gogh purists, assuming such people exist. But it will likely be accepted in the spirit with which it is given: as a kind of elaborate and classy – if ultimately pointless – exercise in fan art.
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