Loving Vincent

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Review by © Jane Freebury

It seems there is no end to the ways to express love for van Gogh. Buy the print, wear the jewellery, wear the watch (!), write the song, make the film, or go on a pilgrimage to the museums dedicated to his legacy.

This animated feature joins the list of varied tributes, and is also the first-ever animated feature film overpainted in oils. Whether or not this bold experiment in animation is a fitting tribute to the post-Impressionist artist considered the father of the modern painting, will depend on where you are coming from.

The plot is sketchy, trying – not that hard, it has to be said – to piece together the fragments of the artist’s life in the months before his death.

Loosely framed as an investigation of the death of the elusive artist, it involves the son of the local postman who is sent on a mission to deliver van Gogh’s last letter to his brother, Theo. Postman Roulin (Chris O’Dowd) and his son Armand (Douglas Booth) and the other characters who are interviewed by Armand are the recognisable subjects of van Gogh’s paintings. As are the fields, trees, flowers, villages and night skies of the French countryside to which the artist returned for the last two years of his life.

The British accents of the actors, O’Dowd, Saoirse Ronan and others, are a bit incongruous, but it’s not a critical issue.

Young Armand, at first begrudging the task he has, becomes keen to uncover the facts of Vincent’s death. As he talks to people who knew the artist, each has their particular view about what happened and why, so he takes it upon himself to uncover the mystery that surrounds the artist as he furiously painted his life away in the small village of Auvers-sur-Oise.

The brief, intense life of a troubled creative artist is a familiar subject for cinema, but there’s a paradox here in how the late work of van Gogh brims with life on screen.

And the lines read from the letters drawn from the trove of written material that he left behind – many written to his younger brother, his confidant and patron – are elegant, engaging and thoughtful.

The filmmakers, writer-directors Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela, who based their production in Poland, commissioned a small army of around 120 artists who each became responsible for painting a few seconds of film.

The frames capture the creative process of painted images that pulsate and spin with energy, like the stilled turbulence of so much of the artist’s most famous work. At times the effect is intoxicating.

Resistance to such an unconventional tribute as Loving Vincent does not perhaps bode well. Early this year and before the film was released, a British arts reviewer trashed it after watching an early trailer. Such entrenched opinion is unlikely to be moved by the experience of the film itself.

To see Loving Vincent and appreciate it involves something like an act of surrender, a laying down of one’s prejudices and preconception, to what is really something like a graphic novel on film, lavishly rendered in the artist’s uniquely expressive and exuberant visual style.

Against the odds perhaps, this unusual tribute becomes a moving evocation of a man who deserves to be remembered for his astonishing body of work, rather than for any predisposition to self-harm.

Yes, it’s the work of painters creating a pastiche of van Gogh’s famous works. The plot is sketchy and as a quest to find out what really happened during the artist’s last months, inconclusive, but necessarily so. As an artistic group effort it may seem to fly in the face of the individuality, direct voice and authenticity that van Gogh strove for.

Yes, but it works.

Rated M, 95 minutes

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7