Loving Vincent: spoiler-free review

It may seem ridiculous to write a ‘spoiler-free’ review of a film about Vincent van Gogh. His life has become the template for the story of the struggling, unacknowledged artist. However, there is a mystery in Loving Vincent.

The film traces the last hours of van Gogh. It throws up numerous revelations about what actually happened on that July day in 1890 when he apparently committed suicide. The film also makes us reconsider who he was, both as a person and an artist.

Our Poirot is a young, drunken and rather hapless investigator, Armand Roulin. Roulin is the son of an Arles postmaster who had befriended van Gogh, and now has a letter to be delivered to the artist’s brother. As Roulin treks across Paris and the south of France, he slowly builds up a picture of van Gogh by talking to both friends and enemies.

Played by Douglas Booth, Roulin is a terrific character who falls into unnecessary scrapes at all the wrong moments, and whose investigative skills are rudimentary at best. Fortunately, the young man’s determination is so infectious that people can’t help but open up to him with the secrets that they know.

The case seems to hinge on the mercurial Doctor Gachet, played against type by Jerome Flynn. Gachet cared for Vincent in his last months. An artist manqué himself, the doctor has become obsessed with his patient and his astonishing creativity.

Over the last eight years of his life, van Gogh produced around 800 canvases. He was driven, possessed by the muse. Most film makers fall into the trap of concentrating on his wildness and struggles with his mental health, and Loving Vincent is no departure from that. Cearly there was another van Gogh too, a man whose life was full of the joy of creation, who sacrificed everything to spend time in the sun, lost in his world of colours and paint.

This focus on the tragedy in van Gogh’s life has created the stereotype of the starving artist in the garret. In fact, many of the impressionists and post-impressionists had become fantastically rich by the end of their lives, such as Monet and Degas. Those who failed to profit financially from their art were often those who had died young, mainly victims of  disease in that pre-antibiotic period, such as Toulouse-Lautrec (dead at 36 from syphilis), Seurat (dead at 31 from diphtheria) and Modigliani (dead at 35 from meningitis).

The sine qua non of Loving Vincent is that the whole film, from start to finish, is painted. This can be disorientating at first, although it doesn’t take long to get used to the bright, almost psychedelic colours. However, the film does seem to be partly based on some kind of live action. The actors have been filmed performing. Perhaps the film has then been used as a kind of transfer over which the artists have painted their work?

It’s reminiscent of the techniques used by Ralph Bakshi in the 1978 cartoon version of The Lord of the Rings. They used ‘rotoscoping’ to film actors and then apply a form of animation on top. It has a unreal effect that worked well in a fantasy picture, but the similar approach here feels a bit unnecessary.

Loving Vincent has a compelling story and some fine performances, and is much more than a curiosity of animation. Its revelations will make you look at the life and work of van Gogh with new eyes.

UPDATE: a short video here on the BBC shows how the film was made.

13 responses to “Loving Vincent: spoiler-free review

  1. I agree the film has a strong story apart from the animation. But I don’t think it is unnecessary at all. It boosts the story and makes it beautiful despite being sad! It makes you really feel you’re involved in a Van Gogh painting during the film. Good review anyway! 😉

    • I hope you find it inspirational! It is fascinating to see the scale of the project. Apparently, a lot of the slides that were used in the film were destroyed in production, because they would paint one picture over the previous one.

  2. Enjoyed that. Looking forward to seeing it.

    As far as rich painters go, I’m always reminded of Caillebotte who I believed stopped so he could concentrate on gardening and racing yachts.

    • Ha ha! I never knew that. I just read about Caillebotte on Wikipedia and discovered that he died while gardening too, so he clearly should have stuck to the debauched underworld of Paris. where he would have been safer!

      • 🙂

        I didn’t know he died gardening! I suppose that when you got to go, you might as well go doing what you love.

        I can see myself passing peacefully away (of course, not aware that I am…) to let’s say Bach’s Cello Suites.

  3. This looks great, what a clever way of telling the story, it looks fantastic. I may as well mention the Doctor who episode as well as that was moving and I wonder how many people will have seen that and will see this film as a consequence.

      • It was a Matt Smith episode, entitled dramatically enough Vincent and The Doctor, it was a fun episode, one of the less budgety ones but they are always the best. I may take a partial interest in The Oscars now.

      • Oh I had heard of that one, but never seen it. The Matt Smith years passed me by, alas.
        The Oscars are a bit odd this year. I’ve barely heard of any of the main contenders, let alone seen them!

      • Same here, I heard of the popular ones due to working in a cinema but when you contend with Transformers and Pitch Perfect, it’s always going to be a challenge.

        I wasn’t too impressed with Matt Smith’s era, there were some good episodes but the writing and approach to storyline didn’t grab me half as much as most other incarnations.