In the world’ s first fully oil-painted feature film, the artist’s paintings come to life with dream-like surrealism.
Multitudes had been eagerly awaiting the screening of Loving Vincent at Mumbai Film Festival 2017 and greeted it with the most thunderous applause I’ve heard so far. The film is a spellbinding homage; of a kind that few can ever hope to match. Over 65,000 frames have been hand-painted by 100 artists from around the world over a period of 7 years, to make it. There was a feeling in the air that we were all witness to a significant moment in cinematic history.
The film situates itself in 1891, a year after the death of the Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh. Young Armand Roulin is charged by his father, a postman, with the task of delivering Vincent’s last letter to his brother Theo. The young man reluctantly sets off, only to find that Theo has died as well. This takes him to Auvers-sur-Oise to meet Dr Gachet, who treated Vincent after his release from the psychiatric hospital.
Talking to people in the village – who alternately describe Vincent as a “nutcase”, a “genius” and pure “evil” – Armand pieces together the story of his last days here. To show us these, the film resorts to black-and-white flashbacks, which are a somewhat predictable element in the storytelling. Gradually, as Armand is irresistibly drawn into the story of Vincent’s death, the film picks up the tone of a murder mystery.
I often found myself entirely missing out on the many dialogues, however, distracted by the overwhelming beauty in every scene. In fact, some of the most striking scenes occur in the utter absence of dialogue, when Armand travels across the country, in a train that whizzes past a bridge across a river. He chases the village idiot through the streets. He meditatively saunters past wheatfields with crows. Played out to Clint Mansell’s soundtrack, these scenes stand out as the ones that most enthral. Art lovers will take delight in recognising many of the 120 paintings that the filmmakers have brought to life – from the bedroom in Arles to the night cafe. In one of his letters to Theo, Vincent wrote, “We cannot speak other than by our paintings” – and the filmmakers claim that this was their guiding principle.
Vincent is known today as the father of modern art. He was prolific, making over 800 paintings up till his death at the age of 37. In one scene, Vincent rushes into the rain with umbrella and easel in tow, to paint the sight. The innkeeper soon realises that this is not unusual behaviour. Vincent is like this every day, heading out for work “by the clock” like a regular job-keeper. The yellow and gold of his cornfield paintings spoke to the brightest optimism in his heart, evoking that side of Vincent that loved all life, for nothing “was too humble for him”.
Yet, at the same time, Vincent’s mental illness breeds tumult. We get a glimpse of this through his friendships with the artist Paul Gauguin – of which I had hoped to see more – and the Gachets. As these spiral out of his control, they create grounds for his notorious ear-cutting episode and, ultimately, his death. There is no romanticisation of the ‘tortured genius’ myth in Loving Vincent; just a stark look at the deep, deep sadness behind it. Dark brush strokes sometimes lay bare a flagrant terror. How could it be that such extremes were contained in one man?
Through its character portrayals, however, the film seems to ask – which of us is really free from contradictions? Dr Gachet moonlights as an artist who secretly admires and copies Vincent’s art. The Sorrowing Old Man is slightly less sane himself, comically enacting why nobody can shoot himself in the stomach like Vincent was said to have.
These characters are all drawn from Vincent’s works of portraiture; works through which he strove to do what Monet had done for landscapes – to create them as “apparitions” of every person’s character. It is no wonder then that the directors decided to have actual actors convey the subtlety of expressions needed to flesh out these characters. Game of Thrones’ Jerome Flynn is Dr Gachet and Academy Award nominee Saoirse Ronan plays his daughter. Aidan Turner of The Hobbit is a sombre boatman.
The actors’ performances were then rotoscoped to give them a dream-like quality, reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life. Each frame was then arduously hand-painted to lend it the rhythm of Vincent’s brush strokes. This really brings the scenes alive with swirling, shimmering spirit, which animation alone could not have achieved. A mere three-second shot apparently took an entire month to complete, making this “the slowest form of filmmaking ever invented”, as a BBC piece described. According to the co-director Hugh Welchman, the final 65,000 paintings could cover the entire area of London and Manhattan put together.
First-time feature film-maker Dorota Kobiela was inspired to make this film after reading Vincent’s letters to Theo. The brothers were so close, almost as “one mind and two hearts”. Considering this, I was hoping to see a little more of Theo. But the film manages to heighten Vincent’s sense of alienation by not showing the full intensity of this relationship with his brother.
Loving Vincent is essentially a story of a man who set out to show “what he has in his heart” in a world that deemed him a failure. While art lent him a sense of purpose, was there a price to this path? The film’s ultimate revelation about Vincent’s death is heart-rending. Haunted by the end credits played to a stirring rendition of Don McLean’s ‘Vincent’, many would spend their journey from the theatre fighting back tears.
While, in every way, Loving Vincent has been made out to be a ‘feature film’ with a conventional storyline pivoted around the possibility of murder, it really is more of a visual masterpiece. One wonders what could have been had the makers gone all out and avoided convention. Perhaps that itself would have been more reflective of Vincent’s spontaneous style. Yet, this film was clearly made with a broad audience in mind, probably considering the popularity of Vincent amongst artists and novices alike.
Loving Vincent will be remembered for years to come for its beauty and bold technique. Though it is unlikely that the film will be released in India, I sure hope it does, so audiences here can experience this moving work of art on the big screen.
Cover image source: ufunk.net
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