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The first fully painted animated feature, Loving Vincent (2017, Dir. Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman) is truly a cinematic event. Each of the films 65,000 frames is an oil painting on canvas, and the novelty of these moving paintings really does sustain and remain fresh for the length of the film. Uncomplicated by design in its love and appreciation for Vincent van Gogh, the film offers a rich visual landscape in which to celebrate this great painter’s art, and is an occasion for us all to revisit his life and story.
The film takes place a year after Van Gogh’s suicide and follows the son of a postman, Armand, who is tasked with delivering a letter Van Gogh wrote before his death to his brother, Theo. During his quest, Armand encounters many who knew Van Gogh, either intimately or tangentially, and together they question the circumstances of Van Gogh’s death (some of the characters believe he was murdered), and the meaning and impact of his life. The film touches on Van Gogh’s mental illness, described by his doctor as “melancholia”, involving highs and lows in mood. The other characters, as recounted in flashbacks, react to Van Gogh and his condition in a variety of ways; some see him as odd, strange, or foreboding, while others restrain judgment, are understanding and open to Vincent and his unique way of life.
The story is perfectly adequate for the film (i.e., do not expect an authoritative account of Van Gogh’s life or work here). Armand’s journey to deliver Van Gogh’s letter leads us through many illustrative reflections that paint Van Gogh in a variety of lights. The conspiracy theories around Van Gogh’s death propel Armand’s quest and give the film some suspense. It is true that we are never terribly invested in the characters on the screen. They are clearly there as messengers and a medium through which we can connect with Van Gogh. And, given what this film is and is trying to do, I think that’s entirely appropriate.
Likely familiar to some, but something which I learned from the film (or perhaps re-learned from a long forgotten Art History class), was that Van Gogh did not begin painting seriously until “later in his life” (the films says 28). He then painted for about 8 years, until his death, creating over 800 paintings, and selling very few, perhaps only one, of these works in his lifetime. Astounding details. The film argues Van Gogh’s story is a hopeful one. The fact that he started painting relatively later in his life, and then went on to become such an icon, is encouraging for those of us who worry we are past the point at which we could truly master something or redefine ourselves in a meaningful way. However, one could easily argue that the fact that Van Gogh sold only one, or very few, paintings in his lifetime is depressing, as this suggests he was relatively unappreciated and unacknowledged during his life. It is hard to imagine slaving away at a passion for years on end without any meaningful positive reinforcement in the form of financial reward or public recognition. But when one considers the great internal joy and self satisfaction that accrues for any kind of artist who is pursuing their craft honestly and intently, it seems less important that Van Gogh’s audience didn’t catch up to him until many years later. Greatness is always observed, in retrospect if not in real time.
Loving Vincent is a refreshing, easily enjoyable movie experience. By far, the main draw here is the unprecedented visual technique of the film. The opportunity to see a painting in motion like this is something that should not be missed. It is also always worth revisiting the life and work of a true master. Some of us (myself included) who have been turned off by the over saturation and ubiquity of The Starry Night posters and reprints through the years now have good cause to re-visit Van Gogh’s work with a fresh set of eyes.