REVIEW: Loving Vincent

Loving Vincent is an animated biographical film about the life and death of the eponymous Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh, directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman and funded by the Polish Film Institute. It is the first feature-length animated film to be entirely hand-painted. Each of the film’s 65,000 or so frames is an elaborate oil-painting inspired by van Gogh’s own oeuvre, created by a team of over a hundred talented artists. The plot begins in France one year after Vincent van Gogh’s untimely death, focusing particularly on the events that led to the artist’s suicide in July 1890.

The film boasts a star-studded voice cast, featuring the likes of Douglas Booth, Eleanor Tomlinson, Saoirse Ronan and Jerome Flynn, to name but a few. A particularly novel touch is the use of these renowned actors’ likenesses within the film’s intricately painted frames. Indeed, many of the actors were undoubtedly cast due to their resemblance to real life figures from Vincent van Gogh’s life. The vast majority of the characters are real people close to Van Gogh, such as his beloved brother Theo, and various people who posed for his paintings, such as Postmaster Roulin. Roulin and his family feature in a whole series of portraits by the artist, painted during his stay in Arles, Provence in 1888-1889. Roulin became a close friend of the artist in real life, having been charged with handling the copious amounts of letters van Gogh sent, particularly to his brother, whom he wrote to every day. Roulin struck up a correspondence with the artist himself, which inspires much of the film’s plot.

Loving Vincent opens in a bar, inspired by Van Gogh’s own painting Café Terrace at Night, frequented by Armand Roulin, the film’s protagonist, voiced by Douglas Booth. The next morning, Armand travels to Paris, upon his father Postmaster Roulin’s request, to deliver a previously undiscovered letter written by the deceased artist to his brother Theo. However, Armand is unable to locate Theo due to his own untimely demise shortly after his brother’s tragic death. Armand decides to retrace the artist’s final steps to ascertain to whom the letter ought to be delivered, now that its intended recipient is dead. He also seeks to discover what happened to his father’s dear friend, who claimed to be feeling better a mere six weeks prior to his death. The trail leads Armand to Auvers-sur-Oise in Northern France, where Van Gogh sought medical treatment under the renowned Dr Gachet, voiced by Jerome Flynn, after his now-notorious mental health crisis in which he cut off his own ear. Whilst there, Armand interviews several locals, including innkeeper’s daughter Adeline Ravoux, voiced by Eleanor Tomlinson, in an attempt to understand what led Vincent to take his own life when his condition seemed to be improving.

As each of the characters describes Vincent’s final days, the bright, earthy colour palate made up primarily of primary hues fades to greyscale, which is used to represent flashback scenes to the previous year, before Vincent died. Through these interviews, Armand gains a sense of what Vincent was like as a person. For instance, despite being quiet and withdrawn, he often behaved in a friendly manner and was particularly kind to children. Armand previously knew of Vincent’s sheer commitment to his craft but perhaps not to the extent of painting outdoors come rain or shine, which Adeline Ravoux fondly remembers him doing. This reflects the fact that Van Gogh is known for being a particularly prolific painter, having painted around 2,1000 pieces of art in a single decade, including around 850 oil paintings, the medium for which he is most well-known. Most of his creative output was produced during the last two years of his life. There is no doubt that the film is visually stunning, which is an apt tribute to the artist’s own ground-breaking creativity, featuring innumerable tributes to Van Gogh’s own paintings, particularly those he painted during his Auvers-sur-Oise Period, such as Thatched Cottages at Cordeville and Wheat Field with Crows, Van Gogh’s last painting before his death.

Loving Vincent is more nuanced than a simple whodunnit. Much of the script is inspired by Vincent’s own letters and perhaps even the writings of other characters featured in the film, such as Adeline Ravoux’s memoir of Van Gogh’s stay at her father’s inn in Auvers-sur-Oise, where he ultimately died on 29 July 1890. The film does not focus solely on the sensationalist, murky details of the artist’s demise but also on his life itself and the legacy which he left. It sheds light on the fact that Van Gogh was penniless throughout his lifetime, despite coming from an affluent background as a Clergyman’s son, and did not experience success in his lifetime. Vincent van Gogh only become a renowned artist after his death. Vincent van Gogh considered himself to be a failure in many respects, such as his failure to meet his father’s academic expectations. He felt guilt for depending on his dear, younger brother Theo for financial as well as emotional support. The film speculates that this sense of guilt could have been one of the factors that led to his suicide.

Loving Vincent handles the delicate subject matter of suicide and mental health issues very carefully, offering a rather nuanced insight into the artist’s way of thinking. Although the ending is ambiguous and may therefore frustrate some viewers, it makes the important point that one can never really know the reasons why someone might take their own life or understand the often rather ambiguous circumstances surrounding their death. This ambiguity is achieved partially through speculation that Van Gogh’s death may have even been an accident. The film implies that the specifics of what happened to Vincent van Gogh are impossible for us to ascertain and that, ultimately, his death is tragic whichever way you look at it, so we should instead focus on his remarkable and inspirational legacy. The film serves to celebrate Van Gogh’s life and work, as well as raising awareness of the issues he faced. On a broader note, the film makes it clear that there is still much more we need to do to help people suffering from mental health issues. Doing so would be a fitting tribute to the kindly man who signed his letters off as Your Loving Vincent.

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