Loving Vincent: a film seven years in the making; a film that may never happen again; a film endeavouring to talk about one of the most famous artists ever to exist. In a way, however, this is Vincent Van Gogh in his own words – or rather, in his own work – as the filmmakers bring his paintings to life to speak for him. This is a handcrafted tribute to a deeply misunderstood and tragically lost figure.
The film is set a year after Vincent’s death, and follows the journey of his last letter to his brother, Theo. The characters that reside in this swirling, oil painted world are all the famous portrait sitters of Van Gogh, there to give snapshots of who they thought Vincent was.
The protagonist who works as the surrogate of the audience is the young Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) who is instructed by his father, the postman of Vincent (Chris O’Dowd), to deliver Vincent’s last letter to his brother Theo. The brothers are spoken of as being ‘two hearts, one mind’, although Roulin initially rails against the task, questioning why he should personally deliver a difficult dead man’s letter. He is persuaded by the evocative notion that if it was a letter his father had left for him after he had died, he would want it. As he searches for a recipient for the letter, the story evolves into a detective film investigating what really happened to Vincent.
It is through the cynical eyes of Roulin that we learn the pained but extraordinary life of Vincent, failing four careers in his 20s before first lifting a paint brush at the age of 28. In only eight years Vincent went from an amateur to a person of influence in the profession. The heart-breaking loneliness of the painter is a constant throughout the film, to the point that a boatman describes Van Gogh’s uncontrollable excitement when a thieving crow started to steal his sandwiches. This loneliness is almost echoed back through the vast gaping skies and dark starry nights.
Through the sheer beauty and transcendental nature of the film, reality melts away into a dreamy vision of Persian blue skies and lemon yellow corn fields. Thus you find yourself lost, trying to find Vincent, but finding instead the beauty of what he left behind. Each of the famous sitters has a different story to tell, and each are strung together by the first second of their appearance on screen.
Each time one of Van Gogh’s sitters appears on screen, for the first second they appear as they do in the portraitures, before coming alive. Thus they all become almost rooted in Vincent’s own hidden narrative. Although, arguably, the story is a little lost within the sheer hypnotic nature of the film, it does hold its own understated poignancy. More nuanced and less pronounced, the tale slowly and subtly speaks to us, hinting about who Vincent perhaps was.
The film is ground-breaking not only for being the first oil painting-animated film, but also as a revolutionary biography. It almost fits more with the micro-history discipline as opposed to classic film-making, as it abandons traditional techniques and lets the narrative be both the art itself and the oral history. It is also unique in its suggestions about Vincent’s life and what might have happened to him: the implications are great and thought-provoking. There is something deeply compelling about watching art come to life, moving within itself as if you had fallen into one of the paintings.
The moving paintings are somewhat of a proxy for the presence of the Vincent of the film. Although Vincent appears in flashbacks and memories, it is through the eyes of others and not himself, thus his artwork presents a more honest portrayal.
The logistics of making a film like this were: 12 frames per second, meaning there were 65,000 frames of paintings within the film. This resulted in 845-900 canvases in total painted by hand, and over 100 artists directly emulating Vincent in an act of loving tribute.
Vincent painted 800 paintings in eight years, but he only ever sold one. The film gives us a Vincent who felt such great pain and compassion that he feared his own future; he feared what burden he was on others. This essence is poignantly presented within his moving paint strokes, whirling around a world without him. There is a beautiful tenderness that his images kept and carried on after him. By the end we are given a beautiful, distant glimpse of a noble and tragic Vincent, before he says “goodnight and good luck with a handshake.”
Image: BreakThru Films