Amazon Prime put this up, and it's as gorgeous as advertised, so now I really regret not having caught it in the cinema, because it must have been even more glorious to watch on the big screen, with (nearly) every frame a Van Gogh canvas, handpainted, not computer made. "Nearly", because there are black and white flashbacks interrupting the handpainted story now and then. At one point in Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo
, Theo van Gogh says as a child he dreamt of stepping inside a painting and living there. Well, Loving Vincent
is as close as you can get to fulfilling that dream.
Its narrative structure is that of a detective story involving exclusively fictionalized versions of people Van Gogh painted. A year after his death, the pov character, restless and moody Armand Roulin from Arles his charged by his father, the local postmaster, to deliver a leftover letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo. (Roulin Père was friends with Vincent; Armand, not so much, and feeling slightly guilty about it feeds into his motivation through the film.) Finding out in Paris that Theo, too, has died, Armand ends up in Auvers where Vincent died, talking to various people about his last weeks, and essentially figuring out the theory first voiced in Steven Naifeh and Gregory White's 2011 Van Gogh biography. (That Vincent didn't kill himself, who actually did, and why Vincent would cover up for that person, since he did state to several people he tried to commit suicide in the almost two days between the shooting and his death.) As is proper for a detective tale, there are red herrings before the guilty party is identified, though then comes a last touch of ambiguity when the last person Armand talks to in the course of his investigation provides a pretty good motive why Vincent could have committed suicide after all.
But really, this is a film which lives by its art, in every sense of the word. It was in fact filmed using actors (who voice the characters in the final product), with the painted versions then using this as motion references. If simply the version of the actors had been onscreen, it would never have risen above being a tv bio special sort of thing, and I don't mean that as a put down, because the visuals are, to point out the glaringly obvious, the key part of what makes and unmakes a movie. Loving Vincent
is an incredible achievement on that front, and that the emotion that comes with watching those Van Gogh paintings come to life and interact with each other would not be there in a conventionally filmed version isn't a criticism but an applause in my book. It also makes for a wonderful tribute to Van Gogh and manages to free his art from the post card feeling which inevitably arises now and then due to a million reproductions, bringing home its vibrancy.
(Mind you: his art from this later years. The earliest paintings referenced are the ones made in Paris when Armand is there; no Potato Eaters
or other early attempts and drawings from Vincent's Dutch life.)
As to the characterisation of the central dead subject: the movie hammers home that a nervous breakdown does not a crazy man make, but otherwise is is pretty much standard Vincent van Gogh, gentle soul, martyr for his art, too good for this world. The black and white sequence of his backstory pre Paris as told by Pere Tanguy to Armand lays it on a bit thick on how he failed at everything before becoming a painter in order to enhance his woobieness even further. In fact, he started out pretty successful as an art dealer at Goupil's (where his uncle Cent worked and where later Theo would work as well), earning more with 20 than his father the pastor did at the same time. That he then came to fail at the art business and drop out of it came to be via a variety of circumstances - unrequited love, increasing religious fervour and increasing distaste for the way the firm commodified art while having increasingly strong art opinions himself.
Van Gogh having a temper of his own, though (and not just when having a breakdown in Arles), and actual flaws (his idea of making his cousin Kee change her mind after she'd turned him down repeatedly involved holding his hand into fire until she talked to him, and when he came to live with Theo in Paris for two years pre-Arles and post-Netherlands, Theo, inarguably the person who loved Vincent best and basically gave his life for him, found him impossible to live with at close quarters) is not something you'll find here, or in most Van Gogh biopics. (Vincent and Theo
being the rare exception.) And it's easy to see why - the tragedy of his early death, that he only sold one of those amazing paintings during his life time, and his many virtues - he really was a social idealist in addition to being an artistic one, and very kind to a great many (usually poor) people, and he had the courage to utterly change his life not once but twice (from art dealer to missionary, and then from missionary to painter) in defiance of what (almost) everyone else thought. But given Loving Vincent
chose as its pov a character who starts out with reservations about Vincent, I was wondering whether or not it would join this very rare number of fictional Van Gogh presentations allowing him some less than admirable traits as well. Which wasn't the case.
In conclusion: a feast for the eyes, a love declaration to Vincent van Gogh, and a work of art. If you're in a region where it's up on Amazon Prime as well, go watch!