Loving Vincent opens on a telling quote that reads “The medium of an artist defines them, it’s their voice, tell their story with it, each note or stroke.”
LESSON #1: ART IS CREATIVE EXPRESSION-- Every word of that Van Gogh quote speaks the absolute truth about artists. Their work, no matter the form, is their mouthpiece. It’s a window into their psyche, beliefs, and passions. Without their works of creative expression, we learn less about the person behind them.
Every animated frame of Loving Vincent, all 65,000 and change, was hand-painted to emulate the oil-on-canvas style of the titular Vincent Van Gogh. Prepared sets and green screens backing the acting performances were composited to become the reference footage for a team of 125 painters. They put color and expression to those tens of thousands of 67cm x 49cm canvases (many of which you can buy) which were woven to create a marvelous moving picture.
The filmmakers promised Loving Vincent to be nothing you’ve ever seen put to film and they were not lying. The sheer artistry is miraculous where even folded shirts look as dramatic as emoting faces, shadows, and objects passing in front of others. To call the biographical drama a work of art and astonishing technical achievement would be shameless understatements. The best part of all is the massive wellspring of creativity was thankfully applied to an engaged narrative worthy of the artistry and the legend cast by Vincent Van Gogh.
On July 27, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh (stage actor Robert Gulaczyk) shot himself and died two day later. He spent his final months painting the human and natural environments of Auvers-sur-Oise northwest of Paris under the friendly patronage of Dr. Paul Gachet (Jerome Flynn of Game of Thrones) and his daughter Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan). One year later, the discovery of an undelivered letter written by a lucid Van Gogh before his suicide stirs questions into the artist’s mindset and circumstantial death.
Postman Roulin (Chris O’Dowd), one of Van Gogh’s few friends, enlists his brash son Armand (up-and-coming British actor Douglas Booth of Romeo & Juliet) to deliver the letter to Van Gogh’s next of kin. Armand travels to Auvers-sur-Oise and retraces Van Gogh’s relationships and final days. Recounts from witnesses and townsfolk, displayed in smoothly painted black-and-white flashback vignettes, reveal as much about how the man lived as how he died.
The cinematography team of Lukasz Zal (Ida) and Tristan Oliver (Fantastic Mr. Fox) captured those canvases in 6K resolution by Canon D20 cameras. From there, the unimaginable stitching task fell to co-director Dorota Kobiela and her debuting feature editor Justyna Wierszynska, resulting in near perfection. As a finishing glaze, the rich visuals are backed by a lush musical score by Clint Mansell (The Fountain).
Beyond all the art, Loving Vincent is an engaging mystery with a lyrical whodunit quality. The performances, particularly from Booth, Flynn, and O’Dowd, shine through the brushstrokes. Co-directed by Kobiela and Hugh Welchman and co-written by the pair with an infusion from Polish poet laureate Jacek Dehnel, the film floats with homages of symbolism and imagery to Van Gogh’s career works.
LESSON #2: INTERPRETING SUICIDE-- The overarching question in any suicide is why. What triggers or stresses push a person to take their own life? Roulin and his son seek to sort out the signs and differing opinions. In many ways, Van Gogh became a martyr for art, which leads to the next lesson.
LESSON #3: INTERPRETING AN ARTIST-- Subjected to ridicule and criticism from a young age to his last, Van Gogh’s talent and purpose were always questioned before the established reverence that followed his death. Another Van Gogh quote in the film reads “We cannot speak other than by our paintings,” which circles back to Lesson #1. Sometimes artists are not peaceful souls. The few people that did realize his greatness in the moment were not enough to save his.