Image from LovingVincent.com

‘Loving Vincent’ Is the “Sincerest Form of Flattery”

Seldom does a biopic about Vincent Van Gogh illustrate the depth of emotion many had for the artist.

Loving Vincent
Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman
BreakThru Productions, Trademark Films
12 Jun 2017 (US)

By the numbers, Loving Vincent is an unexpected cinematic hit. Between its September 2017, US opening in New York and its currently-listed final screening this month in Boston, the surprising indie will have been screened in more than 250 venues in the US alone. According to a December Variety article, Loving Vincent earned $5.8 million in its first 11 weeks in the US and has increased its earnings past $6.5 million. Not bad for a foreign independent film largely promoted through word of mouth. The film similarly succeeded in winning over audiences internationally.

The film that Radio Poland touted as the greatest success in the history of Polish cinema also celebrates a growing number of awards and nominations that reflect its worldwide critical acclaim.
Loving Vincent took home the award for Best Animated Feature Film from the 2017 European Film Academy Awards in Berlin, won the Audience Award at both the International Animation Film Festival in France and the Ostend Film Festival in Belgium, and received the Best Feature Film award at the Adirondack Film Festival in New York. More recently, Loving Vincent won Russia’s Golden Eagle Award for Best Foreign Language Film and has earned Golden Globe, Academy Award, and BAFTA nominations as one of the year’s best animated films.

One reason for the film’s financial success and critical acclaim is its uniqueness. Billed as “the world’s first fully painted film”,
Loving Vincent has enjoyed a global love affair not only because of its artistic form but its subject matter: one of the world’s most beloved artists, Vincent van Gogh. The film both engenders new fans for Van Gogh, who had so few supporters during his lifetime and satisfies those aficionados long familiar with his work and life story. Loving Vincent is an intriguing combination of biopic and cinematic art that has piqued critics’ and audiences’ interest around the world.

Loving Vincent as a Biopic

In brief, the plot traces the route that Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), the son of Van Gogh’s friend and subject of a series of paintings, postman Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd), takes to deliver Vincent’s last letter to his brother, Theo. Along the way, Armand and the audience encounter the people Vincent knew, including those who served as subjects for portraits. Writers-directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman strove to make
Loving Vincent an accurate biography and, as a biopic, the film appeals both to Van Gogh experts and general audiences who likely harbor preconceptions about the artist.

The facts that probably everyone comes to the film knowing are that Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear and later committed suicide. The “ear incident” has been depicted in numerous films and television episodes, usually in a highly dramatic re-enactment. After an argument with fellow artist Paul Gauguin over what would be the aborted future artist colony Van Gogh had dreamed of, Vincent sliced his ear with a razor and, as the story usually goes, took the unattached ear to a brothel in order to present it to his favorite prostitute. The dramatization of this event is graphically illustrated in
Loving Vincent, although recent research by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam encouraged a different version than was originally filmed and painted. In 2016, the Museum reiterated that Van Gogh cut off not just a portion but his whole ear. This new finding led to approximately 3,000 frames in Loving Vincent having to be reshot and painted as part of the effort to be as accurate as possible.

Although Loving Vincent deals with difficult aspects of the artist’s biography, the biopic is a loving tribute, but does not unduly focus on violent plot points. In fact, Kobiela and Welchman include a theory put forth by Van Gogh’s most recent biographers, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, whose Van Gogh: The Life (Random House, 20110. In their biography, Naifeh and Smith posit that a local youth, who liked playing cowboy and waving around a pistol, fatally wounded Van Gogh unintentionally as the author painted in a field. The “accidental homicide”, as Naifeh and White define it, is controversial and ultimately refuted in Kobiela and Welchman’s film. However, its inclusion keeps the film up to date with the most recent biographical publication and likely makes more viewers aware of the latest in a long line of theories regarding Van Gogh’s death.

Despite the film’s conclusion that Vincent committed suicide, it—like the numerous biographers studying the artist’s life during the past century—cannot ascribe a reason why. In fact, one reason the film resonates with audiences is that viewers, like so many anguished characters on screen, do not understand why he would choose to kill himself, especially at that point in his life. The sense of loss felt by those who knew the artist is emphasized in this film. Postman Roulin, for example, is sorrowful and anguished as he struggles to come to terms with Vincent’s death. Doctor Gachet (Jerome Flynn) worries that his harsh words drove Vincent to suicide a few days later. However, Armand also hears happy memories of Van Gogh. Adeline Ravous (Eleanor Tomlinson), the daughter of the café owner who rented Vincent a room, spoke with Vincent daily. She believes that Van Gogh was happy living in Auvers and tells Armand about Vincent’s passion for painting outdoors, even during a thunderstorm. As much as possible, the actors and scriptwriters paint a balanced picture of Van Gogh’s mindset.

By allowing Armand to be a good listener while these and other characters reminisce about Van Gogh,
Loving Vincent makes the artist come alive, both to those still mourning him on screen and to audiences viewing the film. Seldom does a biopic about Van Gogh illustrate the depth of emotion many had for the artist. The usual focus of filmed biographies (e.g., Lust for Life, Van Gogh: Painted with Words, Vincent and Theo, Vincent Minelli, 1956) centers on Van Gogh’s emotions, particularly if they are portrayed as violent or erratic. Thus, the “ear incident” and suicide are key scenes in any biopic and, although they exist in this film, they are nonetheless only part of a much larger portrait of the artist’s personal life and those who shared it with him.

Loving Vincent as a Work of Art

The film goes beyond a cinematic biopic and succeeds as a work of art when its novelty and similarity to a moving painting are considered. Loving Vincent relies on the filming technique of rotoscoping, the process of tracing over a filmed scene. Van Gogh’s use of impasto (a thick layering of paint, resulting in easily seen brush strokes), for example, creates a specific look on canvas that vastly differs from the appearance of a typically filmed scene. However, a rotoscoped film cell can look as if oil paint has been heavily applied to it because that is exactly what happened. Van Gogh’s portraits are brought to life because actors, cast to resemble as closely as possible their portraits, were filmed moving and talking like the real people being represented. The film was then painted over in a style highly reminiscent of Van Gogh’s.

Transitions between scenes playfully remind audiences of specific Van Gogh paintings. The iris, a popular transition between scenes in the early days of film, involves a circle closing; this technique closes several scenes in Loving Vincent. Thus, when a purple flower from Van Gogh’s Irises guides viewers’ eyes from the end of one scene into the beginning of the next, the film is artistically and humorously using an “iris” effect. This nod to two media—film and painting—being blended through rotoscoping is an example of the creativity that suggests that Loving Vincent, as a work of art, transcends previous examples of rotoscoping and, indeed, becomes a unique cinematic art form.

Dedication to detail has endeared Loving Vincent to many critics and filmgoers, not only for the way that so many of Van Gogh’s paintings have been worked into the story but as a tribute to the artist’s creative spirit. Even so, some critics find Loving Vincent too much a work of art; its emphasis on paintings or talking heads brought to life from portraits hinders the plot’s pace. However, filmmakers Kobiela and Welchman knew the majority of their audience well. Those who adore Van Gogh’s work, mourn his tragic death, or enjoy the spectacle of art on film probably are going to be satisfied with a romanticized re-enactment of many of Vincent’s gentler moments. These viewers are less likely to mind so many talking heads reminiscing about Van Gogh. Furthermore, many viewers likely were first attracted to the film by the promise of seeing Van Gogh’s paintings in a new way. They may be satisfied longer with the spectacle of seeing moving art via rotoscope technique, unlike critics who evaluate Loving Vincent just as they would any other film and may quickly tire of artistic technique in lieu of plot development.

When Loving Vincent is critiqued according only for its plot or decisions regarding performance, it does not fare quite so well. The story line is, after all, very basic: a young man talks with many of Van Gogh’s acquaintances as he travels; he cannot deliver the letter to Theo because he, too, is deceased. Determining what to do with the letter is hardly a dynamic mystery. The plot primarily succeeds as a framework for linking Van Gogh’s paintings to form a story.

Although individual actors’ performances are highly effective, one decision regarding performance weakens audiences’ ability to suspend disbelief and pretend that all characters live in France. An important choice was to cast actors from a variety of nations who used their own accents rather than having their characters speak with a regional French accent. Although the casting brought together actors from across Europe, the majority of roles are played by English, Irish, or Polish actors. Thus, Aidan Turner, who hails from Ireland, speaks with his natural voice and Irish inflection when the French Boatman converses with Vincent, played by Robert Gulacyzk, who is a Polish theater actor. English actor Booth portrays Armand Roulin, the character whose travels and conversations with Van Gogh’s friends and colleagues drive the plot. For some viewers, the shifts among accents may be jarring and take them out of the story.

Despite the film’s plodding plot and variety of accents, the successful use of rotoscoping to mimic Van Gogh’s style and the film’s ability to bring movement to so many Van Gogh paintings ensure that this cinematic biography stands out from other biopics about this artist. Whether
Loving Vincent increases its number of nominations or wins may, ultimately, be less important than its stature among other rotoscoped films, Van Gogh biographies, or mesmerizing works of art. It is best viewed on a big screen, but its recent (16 January) arrival on Blu-ray makes it increasingly accessible to anyone who wants to savor this moveable visual feast of a film that illustrates why, more than a century after his death, we continue loving Vincent.

RATING 9 / 10