(Poland / United Kingdom, 2017)
27th October – 2nd November, DCA
Ever since Loving Vincent, the first entirely hand-painted feature film in history was announced, it attracted attention for its ambition from art lovers and novices alike. The first entirely hand-painted feature film in history, it is indeed a marvel to behold; it is simply hypnotizing to conceive of the time, talent and vision, which brought about its creation. Consisting of over 65,000 intricate oil paintings on canvas – staying true to Van Gogh’s chosen medium – the process took 115 artists and a cast of actors working over several years to complete.
Painting is an act that crystalizes experience and emotion and freezes it to be displayed as a conduit between the world of viewer and artist. It is appropriate then that the mystery and tragedy of Vincent’s lonely but effervescently creative life and death has been distilled for us through paint, made lucid in film. The ever-shifting strokes capture the beautiful, yet chaotic perspective through which artists and the mentally ill often see the world. Van Gogh wrote, in a letter the week before his death that “we cannot speak other than by our paintings.” It is apt then, that the filmmakers stitch together scenes, places and people by referencing Van Gogh’s paintings. From café fronts, lit like Hopper’s Nighthawks by a pool of golden light, the flower peppered gardens of Auvers, to now seemingly exotic characters like the Algerian Zouave, fragments of Van Gogh’s life make up the film. The credits of the film provide an insight into the depth of research filmmakers undertook. We essentially see through his eyes as a post-masters son traverses the life and places he left behind, seeking clarity.
Narratively, the story follows a man sent to fulfill one last errand for the Van Gogh family months after Vincents death, but quickly becomes fixated upon how he came to die from a gunshot to the stomach. Plagued by demons himself, the post-masters son, in a dream-like state of lucidity explores the pettiness of society gossip and judgment, and the cruelty dealt to those who are different. Much like the technically similar Waking Life the perspectives slip between characters and unreliable narrators, and reality becomes plastic, exploring the tangled relationships we all create throughout our lives.
To those who wish to write off Loving Vincent as a gimmick, pandering to fans of an artist now commoditized to the point of painful irony – for Van Gogh only sold one painting in his life-time, for a pittance – I will reference one particular point in the film. The boatman remarks that he was surprised by Van Gogh’s delight in seeing a crow stop to scavenge scraps of his lunch. He says, “how lonely was this guy that a scabby crow brightens up his day?” By having us seeing every frame through the vibrant and mystical medium of impressionist painting, the filmmakers have in some way broken the solipsism of the lonely, creative and misunderstood artist committed to the beauty and significance of the everyday.
I have read reviews wherein the writer laments Van Gogh’s style being reproduced and imitated to the point of meaninglessness. However, in truth, Loving Vincent is a testament to a belief the man himself tried even in his darkest moments to live by; that life should be spent creating, seen through a perspective of wonder, appreciation and brilliance. He once wrote, “what would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?” I for one am happy to have whiled away the runtime mesmerized by the beauty and melancholia created by film-makers who attempted ambitiously, and ultimately successfully to convey his world, without daring to solve his mysteries or sensationalize his madness. There are many moments of joy, hope and comedy, which render the film balanced and life affirming, reflective of the steely faith Van Gogh had in love and life. After all, the title is not indicative of the filmmakers adoration, but of Vincent’s favourite correspondence valediction.