Loving Vincent

November 2, 2017
Not quite Vincent...
Not quite Vincent...

Loving Vincent is one of those films that leans heavily on its novelty value. Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer was the first talkie; Alexander Sokurov’s The Russian Ark was the first feature to be shot in a single take; Thor:Ragnarok is the world’s first Kiwi superhero comedy; Loving Vincent is the world’s first fully painted film. To be precise: 62,450 frames have been hand-painted by 125 artists, animating 120 paintings by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90). The process took approximately ten years.

The movie has been shot in a conventional manner then painted over, meaning that wellknown actors are still recognisable beneath the rippling, coloured brushstrokes. It’s a startling visual experience, let down by a creaking storyline and the inevitable sentimentality that attaches itself to every popular depiction of Van Gogh’s brief, tortured life.

Co-directors, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman have taken their lead from the appendix to Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s monumental 2011 biography of the artist, which put forward the theory that Van Gogh didn’t commit suicide but was shot by a third party.

I’ve asked several Van Gogh experts about this idea and they have unanimously declared it to be rubbish. Nevertheless, as everyone loves a good conspiracy story and delights in seeing the experts proven wrong, the tale has taken up permanent residence in a small corner of the Van Gogh mythos. In Loving Vincent it is the engine that drives a rather flimsy plot.

The film begins in Arles, dropping us into the middle of one famous painting after another. It has been a year since the artist’s death in Auvers-sur-Oise, and the citizens of Arles are still arguing about the crazy Dutchman who lived among them from 1888-89. The postman, Joseph Roulin, who remembers Vincent fondly, has discovered an unsent letter from the artist addressed to his brother Theo. Joseph is trying to convince his dissolute son, Armand, to deliver it. As they have no address for Theo, it will entail a train trip to Paris, and possibly beyond.

Roulin is instantly recognisable by his free-flowing beard. His son is identified by the bright yellow jacket he wears in Van Gogh’s portrait. A more unsettling element is Chris O’Dowd’s Irish brogue, which comes out of Roulin’s mouth. Neither is it clear why his son, played by Douglas Booth, should speak in a London accent.

The gaggle of accents continues throughout the film and is presumably meant to signify that these characters are French provincials. I suppose it’s no worse than the time-honoured practice of having English-speaking actors talking like Pepé le Pew and shouting “Zut alors!”

Armand is at first unwilling to deliver the letter, showing same kind of reluctance that Australia Post now displays, following Ahmed Fahour’s makeover. Eventually he succumbs to his father’s insistence, takes a holiday from boozing and brawling, and heads off to the capital. There he visits the paint seller, Père Tanguy, who looks just like his portrait but sounds like Scottish actor, John Sessions.

Tanguy tells Armand the bad news that Theo has died. Rather than seek an address for Theo’s widow while in Paris, Armand decides to travel to Auvers-sur-Oise, having become increasingly curious about the circumstances of Van Gogh’s death. The big question is: “If Vincent could write to his friends that he was well and happy, why would he shoot himself?”

In Auvers the plot will thicken, although “curdle” might be a better word. Transformed into Hercule Poirot, Armand will interview the inn-keeper’s daughter who looked after Vincent; Dr. Gachet, who treated him; a housekeeper who disliked him; a boatman who makes a few astute observations; Dr. Gachet’s daughter, who befriended the painter; another doctor with a theory about Vincent’s death, and so on. The result is a mass of contradictory information that Armand fashions into his own conclusions.

The filmmakers do their best to turn this part of the story into a mystery, but it’s hard to overcome the constant visual distraction of seeing so many paintings brought to life in quick succession. We meet Van Gogh himself in black-and-white flashbacks, his avatar being Polish actor, Robert Gulaczyk.

The paradox of this entire project is that Van Gogh, who considered himself a realist, is known for the sincerity and directness of his work, but the labour-intensive process of painting his images over film frames sacrifices reality for a gaudy spectacle. A great painting makes us stand still and contemplate what we see, but this is impossible when everything is flashing before one’s eyes like a video clip.

The score by Clint Mansell, known for his work with Darren Aronofsky, manages to avoid the hearts and flowers, but as the credits roll to the strains of Don MacLean’s Vincent (Starry, starry night), we can feel how desperately the directors are reaching out to their audience. With the most popular artist in the world they probably didn’t have to try so hard.

Loving Vincent
Directed by Dorota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman
Written by Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman & Jacek Dehnel
Starring Douglas Booth, Chris O’Dowd, Saoirse Ronan, Jerome Flynn, Robert Gulaczyk, Helen McCrory, Eleanor Tomlinson, Aidan Turner
UK/Poland, rated PG, 94 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 4 November, 2017