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.