A titanic endeavour brings van Gogh’s world to life
Text by: Rebecca Rizzi
On multiple levels, Loving Vincent is an astounding achievement; its well-deserved success substantiates how art and tenderness attract people to cinemas, even more so considering that spectacular Hollywood movies produce lukewarm results at the box office. The Polish production, which was released in cinemas worldwide for a limited time, generated in Italy 1.2 million euro, totaling over 50% of cinema revenues in three days only. A cinematic event, for all intents and purposes.
Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman worked with 125 classically trained oil painters and gave life to the first fully hand-painted feature film: 65,000 frames, built up from 94 artworks of the world’s most famous artist who sold only one painting while living.
A year after Vincent van Gogh’s sudden death, the artist’s trusted postman instructs his son Armand Roulin to deliver the last letter Vincent addressed to his brother Theo before taking his own life. In his journey to Paris, Armand reconstructs the artist’s last days through the stories of the people who were closest to van Gogh. The inn-keeper’s daughter, the boatman, the paint seller, Doctor Paul Gachet and his daughter Marguerite, all provide their own interpretation of the events that lead to the artist’s death, as Armand explores the possibility that the artist was murdered.
To be fair, despite the visual beauty of the project and its interesting take on a biopic, the storyline sometimes vacillates, ultimately failing to render one of the most complex personalities that art history has known. For the most part, van Gogh is only superficially evoked through other characters’ stories. The narrative structure is over reliant on frequent flashbacks, visibly distinguished from the present in sharper, black-and-white paintings. The flickering images produce a hypnotic effect: the sheer beauty of the frames enthralls to an extent that sometimes overpowers the sequence of events. If one accepts that the scope of the project is to re-create van Gogh’s world through his own paintings and style and not to delve into his humanity, then the endeavor is conceptually fulfilled.
Nevertheless, as much as the impressionist and post-impressionist movements created a rupture in the history of art, conveying a world for the first time filtered through the artist’s emotion and perception, the creative team behind Loving Vincent created a similarly unique creative revolution and here lies the film’s greatest merit. In a world where we are used to a hyper-defined visual experience, where virtual realities and CGI is at its finest, where 4K smartphones are now an extension of our arms and eyes and the message is valued in its immediate delivery, the exercise of evocation this film entails is a welcome change.
There’s something primordial in watching a film come to life through brushstrokes; the experience is enhanced by engaging the viewer’s sense and sensibility. Of course, one might object, to some extent that’s what all animation does, or for that matter, what cinema is- a strictly personal, intimate experience, but Loving Vincent further involves the viewer in the scene, conferring an emotion through tactile brushstrokes. The frames convey the image of a face or landscape– the viewer does the rest.
Loving Vincent identifies with the same artistic movement it narrates: it’s not a film about impressionism (or post-impressionism, for that matter), it is impressionism. The brushstrokes are so vivid they caress not only sight but all five senses; you can almost anticipate the taste of wine as it’s being poured in a glass and smell the starry nights’ air blowing across the wheat fields.
The subject matter is contained within those brushstrokes; visible and distinct, they project the artist’s intention, identifying with van Gogh’s: “I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say ‘he feels deeply, he feels tenderly”. After all, “the truth is, we cannot speak other than by our paintings”: literally, what Loving Vincent entails.
Marshall McLuhan would have appreciated this film; the medium is the message.
For release details lovingvincent.com