By Michael Kalafatis (Stoke on Trent)
Loving Vincent begins with an intertitles that states, “The film you are about to see has been entirely hand painted by a team of over 100 artists.” We instantly realise that we are about to see a film unlike any other, a film that endeavours to immerse us into the expressionistic style of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings while also exploring his ephemeral and turbulent life.
The film’s narrative begins in Arles, 1891 one year after Vincent’s death. Postman Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd) asks his son Armand (Douglas Booth) to deliver Vincent’s last letter to his last remaining relative Theo, his younger brother. Armand reluctantly agrees to go to Paris. In Paris he meets Pere Tanguy Vincent’s art supplier who informs him that Theo died six months after Vincent , he suggest that he goes to see Dr. Paul Gachet (Jerome Flynn) who lives in the northwestern suburbs of Paris called Auvers-sur-Oise, Dr. Gachet housed Vincent after his release from asylum while he also shares Vincent’s ardent for art. Auvers-sur-Oise is also the last resting place for both Vincent and Theo van Gogh.
When Armand arrives in Auvers-sur-Oise he stays in Auberge Ravoux, the same inn that Vincent occupied and even taking the same room. He gets to know the temporary proprietress Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tomlinson) and asks around about Vincent’s behaviour and habits. While at the start of his task Armand was passive and indifferent towards Vincent, his death and his art he gradually and unexpectedly becomes interested in him by the various anecdotes that he hears around Auvers-sur-Oise, which convey Vincent enigmatic and solitary nature.
Armand main obsession becomes Vincent’s death and the circumstances that led to it. He starts to believe that Vincent’s apparent suicide was not really a suicide but that something else transpire that led to his unfortunate demise, this outlandish notion becomes more apparent midway through the film when he writes a letter to his father, “Dear father, I’m still waiting to see the doctor. I could have just given the letter to the housekeeper or his daughter, but something happened with Vincent in that house. I can tell. I want to ask the doctor about it. I have decided to retrace the path that Vincent took with his easel that day because what I have been told doesn’t add up.”
The plot of Loving Vincent is reminiscent of a film noir, Armand fits on the role of a private investigator whose task is to investigate an enigmatic case while he also showcases all the traits of a private eye e.g. chain smoking with cunning and cynical personality. Only the plot has the film noir influences, the look of the film is pure expressionism or just pure Van Gogh, the painters who worked on the film have manage to imitate Van Gogh’s style so faithfully that they even manage to incorporate his real paintings in to the narrative of the film. Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, the directors of the film have manage through perfect casting and animation to bring to life Van Gogh’s most important paintings, it is like watching a Van Gogh exhibition of his greatest paintings while simultaneously learning about his life.
Every single frame of the film has the artistic signature of Van Gogh (except the flashback which are rendered in black and white photography) from the bright hues of colours, the influence of Japanese prints, the impressionistic landscape, the people he met and painted. But Van Gogh as a character has limited screen time, he remains elusive all throughout the narrative and we only see him through various flashbacks. Thus we only get a fragmentary impression of him, we only see him through the eyes of Armand, he remains a mystery till the end but that is the reason he is one of the most fascinating painters, whose paintings created a new world, a world that still fascinates and perplexes.
Clint Mansell creates an elegiac musical score that put emphasis to the mystery and solitude that surrounded Vincent’s whole life. Vincent since childhood always felt inadequate, he always tried to be normal and fit into his family. He was told that he was the oldest child but not the first, the first Vincent was a stillborn older brother, a perfect version of himself who tried all his life to live up to while failing on every endeavor that he ever undertook to satisfy his parents. His first job was at his uncle art dealership, but he was thrown out in disgrace, he tried his father’s profession but the pastor exams were too difficult for him, he then took a job as a lowly missionary but he was sacked even from that.
Theo, his younger brother was the only person who believed in Vincent, and encourage him to paint, an occupation that he started at the late age of 28, which led him to Paris. In Paris he came in contact with all the important painters of that era like Monet, Toulouse, Manet, Seignac and others but he did not aimed to stay there, he eventually went to the south of France in Arles. In Arles he rented four rooms in the now famous Yellow house, in which he planned to bring likeminded artist to work alongside him with only Paul Gauguin accepting his invitation and shortly leaving amidst arguments that ended with Vincent’s cutting his own ear. Clint Mansell’s score embellishes all these tragic moments with the right music, which not only convey sorrow but also awe while retaining Vincent’s aloofness and melancholy.
Verdict: Loving Vincent is a film unlike any other, it’s a biography of one of the most elusive and important painters of the 19th century, who has limited screen time but his art speaks louder than his life and his eccentricities. The creators of the film manage to immerse us into the surreal and eccentric art of Van Gogh, while simultaneously displaying an interesting story that includes faithful reenactments of Vincent’s most important paintings.