What’s more important to know about Vincent van Gogh – the man art historians consider the father of modern painting – how he lived, or the circumstances of his death? That’s the question the visually stunning new film Loving Vincent tries to answer. If that’s all you’re thinking about after seeing the film, though, you’ve missed the point. That’s why it’s forgivable that the movie’s story is the weakest thing about it. The way the story is told, though, is unforgettable. Every frame of Loving Vincent was oil-painted by hand. It took a team of 125 painters two years to complete. The movie is a beautiful exception to the rule “form follows function.”
If you don’t know anything about van Gogh besides his most famous painting, The Starry Night, and the fact that he cut off part of his left ear, Loving Vincent will introduce you to the mystery of the artist’s death. It’s an event that has only recently become a mystery. Two authors, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, published a biography of van Gogh in 2011 that offers an alternate theory about how he died. Instead of committing suicide by shooting himself in the stomach, the authors claim their research shows van Gogh might have been the victim of manslaughter. The movie explores this controversial new theory, which has been rebutted by experts, and is its central dramatic arc.
The story takes place in 1891, a year after van Gogh’s death. The postman Joseph Roulin, a man who befriended the troubled artist during his darkest period, has his last letter. It’s addressed to van Gogh’s brother, Theo. Joseph asks his son, Armand, to deliver the letter to Theo personally, as he has tried to send it through the mail, but it has been returned as undeliverable. Armand begrudgingly agrees – he didn’t much care for the strange painter – and sets off to make the delivery. He discovers Theo is also deceased, so he decides to give the letter to Dr. Paul Gachet, a physician who treated Van Gogh after his stay in an asylum. While waiting for Dr. Gachet to return from business abroad, Armand speaks to the local village’s residents about Van Gogh, and tries to unravel the mystery surrounding his death.
Through Armand’s conversations, we get – please excuse the pun – a portrait of Vincent van Gogh that never quite comes into focus. The movie works as part Citizen Kane, part Rashomon. In Kane, we learn posthumously about the business tycoon Charles Foster Kane. A reporter interviews those who knew him, in an attempt to decipher the meaning behind the dead man’s last word – rosebud. In Loving Vincent, Armand tries to get a clearer sense of the painter by speaking to those who interacted with him in the last six weeks of his life.
The people he speaks to, though, give contradictory accounts of the man and what actually happened while he was convalescing in Dr. Gachet’s home. Much like the eye-witness accounts to the central event in Rashomon, the characters in Loving Vincent provide conflicting and self-serving narratives about their interactions with van Gogh, and it’s up to Armand to determine what really happened.
While directors Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) and Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon) used these techniques to great effect in their films, the directors of Loving Vincent, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, don’t craft a narrative that is as insightful or interesting. Armand is relegated to going back and forth from eye-witness to eye-witness, teasing out the fact from the fiction. The most captivating sections of the film aren’t those in which Armond is playing detective, but those that allow him and the other characters to attempt to see the world through van Gogh’s eyes. There is real magic in these moments.
There is also real magic in the dedication and herculean effort involved in making the first fully oil-painted feature film in history. Kobiela and Welchman were at the helm of a wondrous artistic and logistical feat. I can’t imagine the preparation it took for the two directors to coordinate 125 different painters – with as many as 97 working at any one time – to come together to make a piece of art that was consistent throughout. It took the two directors four years just to finalize a technique, and another two years for the artists to complete all the work. There is an article available on artnet news that details the process. The most fascinating thing is that while the movie consists of 65,000 individual frames, by the end of shooting, the filmmakers only had 845 different paintings. Within any given shot, the painters would make tiny adjustments to the same painting over and over in order to conjure the illusion of motion. The final 845 paintings represent the last change that was made to each individual shot.
The time and commitment are even more impressive considering the artists were creating their images both from the works of van Gogh (to make the entire film look like a motion picture version of his work), but also live action footage of actors that was shot before they began painting. This comes through in a mesmerizing way when you identify an actor solely by their representation in oil paint. This happened to me as the actors Chris O’Dowd (the elder Roulin), Saoirse Ronan (Marguerite, Dr. Gachet’s daughter, and a love interest of van Gogh), and Jerome Flynn (Dr. Gachet) – better known by many as Bronn on Game of Thrones – appeared on screen.
From start to finish, to look at the film is to be astonished. A moment that sticks out in particular is as simple as hands dipping into a pool of water. When rendered in full-motion oil paint, the beauty of the hands stirring the water as the reflection of the face starring into that water moves and distorts is unbelievable. It gives new and awe-inspiring meaning to the term motion picture. Composer Clint Mansell accompanies the visuals with a haunting score. It’s as good as his best work collaborating with director Darren Aronofsky, specifically his orchestrations on the films Requiem for a Dream and the gorgeous music for The Fountain.
Loving Vincent is an utterly unique filmgoing experience. It’s made more powerful by seeing it on the big screen. The story doesn’t come close to matching its visual artistry, though. We leave not knowing much more about the troubled inner life of van Gogh than when we came. But, as the artist himself wrote in a letter to Theo the week before his death, “Well, the truth is, we cannot speak other than by our paintings.” In this way, Loving Vincent excels at allowing van Gogh to be heard.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- This seems low, because the visuals are amazing. Loving Vincent really is a one-of-a-kind movie. But, the story is just lacking something. It drags, and becomes boring at times.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- My research in preparation for writing the review answered the biggest question I had while watching the movie. I was under the (mistaken) assumption that each frame of the film represented a different painting. I could not figure out how the background of the painting remained so still while the characters "moved" on screen. Learning that the painters painted over the same canvas for a single shot, effectively moving a character or object as it moved within the frame flabbergasted me even more.
- Anyone who is a Game of Thrones fan has come to expect a satisfying sarcastic and foul-mouthed delivery from actor Jerome Flynn as Ser Bronn. His performance in Loving Vincent as Dr. Gachet is the polar opposite of Bronn. It's mournful, understated, and very moving. Flynn is spectacular in the role.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- My partner, Rach, informed me that I am perhaps the only person on Earth who doesn't already know the plot of Murder on the Orient Express. I just never got into Agatha Christie when I was younger. So, I'm in a unique position going into Kenneth Branagh's new adaptation of the famous murder mystery novel. It looks to be a lavish production. I'll report back next week on whodunit.