Cinema in our time is almost completely dominated by aesthetic. This has curiously been the case with both Hollywood mastodons and lower budget fare. The look of a film now supersedes its narrative, as evident in much of this year’s offerings ranging from Blade Runner 2049 to Wonderstruck. But Loving Vincent, an elegant and enrapturing film experience, proves that when approaching the life of a great artist, aesthetic is key — the trick is how to fuse the gesture with an engaging narrative. The film is an exploration of the cryptic life of Vincent van Gogh, his dark aura and wondrous talent, brought to life through his own visions. Here is a film worth seeking out in whichever local arthouse lucky enough to be showing it. I am grateful I accepted an invitation to see it from a dear friend who had just returned from those burning lands in the Middle East, who confessed Van Gogh was her muse and so was drawn to this film like a moth to flame.
Many artists — from writers to painters — leave the traces of their lives in their work. The great artist will nearly always be obsessive, either privately or openly. Loving Vincent understands this to a point of obsession worthy of its subject. The film took six years to make and employed 100 oil painters to animate the film. It is quite literally a work of art in motion — the world’s first fully painted feature film. Every frame and sequence is adorned in the brush strokes and palettes of Van Gogh’s own work. Streets, taverns, fields and personas are all rendered as they would have been in the interiors of Van Gogh’s imagination. No film biography — like most literary attempts — is perfect, because we can never truly know the inner most private self of another, but the way in which the film conjures Van Gogh is a beautiful experience.
Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, the film employs the classic “Rosebud” technique originated by Citizen Kane. Postman Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd) sends his son Armand (Douglas Booth) on a special errand: to deliver the final letter of the artist Vincent van Gogh (Robert Gulaczyk) to his brother Theo (Cezary Lukaszewicz). It has been one year since the great artist died in an apparent suicide by gunshot and the town where it happened remains haunted by the memory of the death and Van Gogh’s presence. Armand discovers that Theo has himself died, but there remains a Dr. Gachet (Jerome Flynn of Game of Thrones fame) who housed and cared for Van Gogh in his final days. As Armand probes deeper into the artist’s life, death and experiences, he begins to question the official version of his passing and gains insights into the breadth of his talent and tragedy.
Because of its design, Loving Vincent flows with the dreamlike power of memory. Draped in paint, sequences culled from Van Gogh’s life take on a haunting resonance. We are viewing his life reenacted through the prism of how he painted the world. Early scenes in which his struggles with his talent are evoked, including the stern stare of his preacher father, and his journey to Paris to taste the world’s art capital, are stirring in their narrative power and visual design. The technique is extraordinary as the film shifts from lush color to noirish black and white, yet never betraying Van Gogh’s signature style. It is the artist’s very technique leaping off the museum wall and saying “this is how he lived, let me show you.”
Many directors have attempted to narrate a painter’s life by aping the look of their work. But there has always been a sense of falling short, mostly because the filmmaker will obsess over the look and end up doing nothing more than just narrating an artist’s basic Google entries. This happened with Carlos Saura’s visually grand Goya in Bordeaux, in which master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro managed to light the film in a way where Francisco Goya’s style was evoked, but the script itself was stale and sluggish. Other, better films such as Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat or Ed Harris’s Pollock would flourish the drama here and there with references to the artists’ works, but never employ their actual aesthetic. Loving Vincent succeeds because it is not attempting to be a rehash of the biopic. Because it is already a walking Van Gogh piece, it is free to be more about individuals and their microcosmic experiences and memories revolving around the artist. They inhabit the master’s canvas, and within its frame we see them hate, love, weep and remember.
Van Gogh himself is a memory in the movie. Armand and those he meets discuss Van Gogh like a vivid experience or dream. Everyone has been marked by him, and now he hovers like a powerful presence. Dr. Gachet confesses he was excited about helping Van Gogh find a home because he himself is an artist — or at least carries the soul of one, having been forced at a young age to study medicine instead. Scenes that in a lesser film might have rung with pure sensationalism here have visceral power, including the infinitely famous episode in which Van Gogh cuts off his own ear. Many of us have been aware of this story since time immemorial, but in this movie it is dark and immediate and provides a window into a tortured psyche. Testimonials Armand hears of Van Gogh’s social isolation, his brief moments of happiness with others including the angelic doctor’s daughter Marguerite Gachet (Saoirse Ronan), are heartbreaking and full of fragility. Armand becomes a witness to the fragility of human experience, because even great talent cannot brush away an individual’s inner demons and rages, if anything they become the crucible which can forge the artist’s work. All of this comes across powerfully because it is projected through that clear yet hazy style of Van Gogh, that style in which figures are sharply defined yet still dissolve in an elegant distortion. Kobiela and Welchman celebrate the artist, but humanize the icon, the ever so human icon.
Such a film requires an adequate sound and composer Clint Mansell delivers with a score that is as elegant as a starry night, as stirring as the colors and shadows that come alive on the screen. Mansell has been particularly notable for his work with Darren Aronofsky, and here he applies his keen sense of rich melody and grandiose passages. His work here ranges from intimate to rapturous. It breathes life to a narrative that is tragic, yet heroic.
How curious that in an age where computers can gestate anything for us on the screen, the most beautiful film of the year combines technological innovation with pure, classic art. Yet as much as we may love just staring at the film (and I stress that you must see it on a big screen), its breadth is made impressive by its human narrative. This year has been a season of pure aesthetic in the cinema, and it has been easy for some critics to praise certain movies based purely on their visual beauty or nerve-wracking editing. This may be because we are ever more a society defined by aesthetic itself, which is dangerous because as Walter Benjamin warned in his seminal essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Fascism eventually results from a purely aesthetic culture. “Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life,” warned Benjamin. But amid such an age of hallucination, a film like Loving Vincent celebrates the power of visual beauty to narrate the poetry and heartbreak of a life lived. This is a film to experience as much as to follow, it wants to evoke Van Gogh and not just re-tell his story. It is art celebrating the hard labor of living and creating.
Alci Rengifo is a Contributing Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.