Loving Vincent (2017)
Dirs. Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman; Douglas Booth, Saoirse Ronan, Eleanor Tomlinson
[2.5 out of 4 stars]
If, like me, you have ever wanted to dive into a painting and swim through it, then Loving Vincent (2017) is a dream come true. The film opens with thick streaks of paint: blue, green yellow, dissolving and expanding into Vincent Van Gogh’s immediately recognizable The Starry Night. It is a familiar introduction to Van Gogh’s work that is nonetheless startling and enthralling; we suddenly find ourselves in The Starry Night, moving through it. The wind rustles through the cypress trees, the huge, billowing clouds blow across the sky. Loving Vincent brings to life 120 of Van Gogh’s works and welcomes viewers to walk among the brushstrokes. Co-directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman have been working on this remarkably detailed collaboration for 10 years. It involved first filming scenes with actors and sets and then enlisting artists to hand-paint the frames in Van Gogh’s style; afterwards, the images were photographed, and the artists painted the aspects of the scene that needed to move. They ended up with over 65,000 hand-painted frames, and the result is nothing short of magical.
Artistry aside, the film would have been all the more enchanting had the filmmakers relied less on the film’s visual beauty and focused more on its plot, which is, as it stands, rather derivative. Our protagonist is Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), who we first meet in a brawl outside a saloon and is soon given an important task by his postmaster father (Chris O’Dowd): deliver Vincent’s final letter to his brother, Theo. Roulin is skeptical, lazy, and often drunk, but his father, who became close to Vincent after handling his constant letters to Theo, finally persuades him to travel to Paris. There, Roulin learns that Theo died shortly after Vincent, so he heads to Auvers-sur-Oise instead in the hopes of finding someone to whom he can deliver the letter. This journey introduces him to the townspeople who knew Vincent in his final weeks; Roulin becomes fascinated by the story of Vincent’s death, becoming increasingly convinced that he was murdered. Our cynical protagonist soon becomes enamored of Vincent and takes on the role of righteous detective.
The film’s aims are a bit difficult to parse out until its conclusion. Loving Vincent is not a standard biography about Van Gogh’s life and at first appears to be an exercise in technical skill and artistic beauty with the goal of bringing Van Gogh’s paintings to life. The film also attempts to explore one of the theories about his death. It is only after finishing Loving Vincent that the viewer is able to step back and appreciate what the film has actually done: ignited a novel realization of Van Gogh’s genius and allowed viewers a better understanding of his mind. The film builds up the character of Van Gogh slowly; at first, he is mentioned by name, then in memories that the townspeople have of him before appearing in flashbacks of the days leading up to his death. Perhaps the most informative detail is the inclusion of many of the actual letters that Van Gogh wrote to Theo. His words reveal his personal voice, his artistic desires, and his troubling innermost thoughts, and we conclude this film with a much deeper understanding for and appreciation of him.
From a narrative standpoint, the plot is somewhat trite. It jumps from the present moment to the days leading up to Vincent’s death, all of which are shown painted in monochrome rather than in the vibrant hues that color the rest of the film, as Roulin attempts to come to terms with exactly how and why Vincent died. On July 27, 1890, Van Gogh did not return to the inn where he was staying until nightfall, which was unusual, and he had a wound in his abdomen. When asked about it, he said, “I tried to kill myself.” He claimed that he had shot himself with a revolver, passed out, reawakened in the evening, and then stumbled back to the inn. When questioned about what had happened, he explained, “Do not accuse anybody; it is I that wished to commit suicide” and died 29 hours later. There are various theories about Van Gogh’s death, namely that he was accidentally shot by a 16-year-old schoolboy who used to tease him, and this is the one that Loving Vincent explores. The film attempts to create compelling suspense, but it never feels authentic. What begins as a journey into the countryside — characterized by scenes of sweeping landscapes and wide shots of conversation between Roulin and the townspeople — suddenly devolves into a detective story, visually indicated by close-ups of faces shrouded in smoke and conversations muttered in low voices. A few people make remarks about the suspicious circumstances surrounding Vincent’s death — the angle at which the bullet entered his body, how happy he seemed in the days beforehand, the fact that he had recently ordered a set of new paints — that arouse suspicion in Roulin. He so quickly works himself into a fervor over a man that he hardly cared about two days before that it is unbelievable. Then, almost as quickly, the matter is resolved and everything quiets down, leaving behind no logical narrative arc. If Loving Vincent truly wanted to make the case that Van Gogh was killed, a theory that few academics seriously consider, then it should have more deeply considered the evidence and devoted itself to that story rather than rushing through it.
Yet the stunning images very nearly compensate for the lack of plot structure. The frames are never entirely static, making a film that could have been a simple stitching together of stationary paintings come alive. Wind whistles through streaks of golden wheat fields, rustling the stalks; flocks of tiny black crows jerkily take to the sky; Roulin smokes cigarettes and blows plumes of thin gray smoke across the frames; slashes of vibrant blue rain cut down through the town and disrupt the scene. The frames of Roulin traveling through the countryside were my favorite, as we see him strolling down carefully painted dirt roads or riding on a train as it rolls through wide green fields. Van Gogh’s works come to life; Clint Mansell complements the visual elegance with a lovely score filled with strings and piano. The delicacy and grace of the music heightens the sensory effects of Van Gogh’s works, and the swells of the film’s aural component create a truly beautiful experience.
Watching Loving Vincent, it is easy to get swept up in the visual beauty of it all and to feel as if you are awakening from a dream when it ends. At first, the film’s conclusion seems disappointing, given its weak narrative. Yet, the result is to give viewers a newfound appreciation for Van Gogh’s works and an insight into his mind. While it is just to marvel at the talent of the artists who hand-painted these frames, even more impressive is the fact that one man had the brilliance to paint each of these works at a time when such a style was not at all appreciated. As the film informs us at its conclusion, Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime. The intricate play of light and color, the deep purple shadows, the furrowed brows and detailed facial expressions — these are the work not of the filmmakers but of Van Gogh himself. Loving Vincent is not truly the final artistic product but rather the means to an end, the conduit through which viewers can experience Van Gogh’s works, and tragic death, in an innovative manner.