Loving Vincent is a gorgeous feature film about the final weeks of van Gogh’s life. If you haven’t seen it, I promise it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Although animated feature films are nothing new, studios like Pixar and Disney have never worked their magic by commissioning 65,000 oil paintings (in this case, ones that mimic VvG’s work) and turning them into scenes. And, just to be clear, this movie was made for grownups.
Vincent died penniless, a suicide at thirty-seven. Only one of his 860 paintings was sold during his lifetime. And yet he was on the cusp of recognition. A genius, according to some fellow artists (like Monet, who also attempted suicide but lived to know success.) What if the gunshot wound that killed Vincent wasn’t self-inflicted? That’s the question the filmmakers use to fuel the plot:
It’s a year after Vincent’s death. His friend, drinking buddy and frequent painting subject–the postmaster of Arles, France–worries about a letter returned as undeliverable, the last one Vincent wrote to his brother Theo. What’s more, six weeks before his suicide, Vincent wrote to the postmaster telling him he felt “absolutely calm and in a normal state.” This, after suffering a mental breakdown and checking himself into an asylum. Find Theo, the postmaster tells his son Armand, a fairly useless hot-tempered fellow. In Paris, Armand learns Theo died six months after his brother. And so begins Armand’s journey to the last stop on Vincent’s: the town of Auvers, where Vincent painted some of his greatest works (including Portrait of Dr. Gachet, which sold at auction in 1990 for a record-breaking $82.5 million.)
The film is stunning, wondrous, a work of art. While the story-telling isn’t quite as amazing as the artistry that went into creating the scenes, don’t let that stop you from seeing it. (My opinion: the story lags in the middle, but picks up steam at the end.) If you enjoy paintings, it’s like a trip to your favorite museum to see a special exhibit on van Gogh. Except it’s more alive, a more immersive experience. In the hand-painted opening credits, paint swirls onto the screen. It starts to look oh-so-familiar. Ohmygosh, it’s van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night (you’ll recognize it when you see it). The painting isn’t static–it ripples with life. A man appears and walks into the café. The story begins and we’re off–seeing the world through van Gogh’s eyes.
As Armand makes his way to Auvers, just outside Paris, he hears conflicting stories from people who knew or talked to Vincent. Flashback scenes are cleverly shot in black & white to avoid confusion, and they reveal information about the artist’s state-of-mind and early life. For me, one of the most heart-wrenching discoveries was learning Vincent had been given the same name as his older brother, who was stillborn a year earlier. Whenever Vincent visited the grave with his mother, he saw his own name on the headstone. The other surprise was learning how prolific Vincent was and how fast he painted, particularly since he was in his late 20s by the time he decided to become an artist. During the year he spent in the asylum (after the slicing-off-his-ear incident), he produced 142 paintings, including The Starry Night. From there he went to Auvers, where he was looked after by Dr. Gachet. He rented a room and created 68 paintings in the 70 days before the gunshot wound took his life.
The actors in the film are more than just voices. They were chosen for their resemblance to real people van Gogh painted, real people turned into characters in the story. A couple of notable names: Saoirse Ronan, a Best Actress nominee for the 2015 film Brooklyn, and Jerome Flynn, who plays Bronn in Game of Thrones. The actors filmed all the scenes. Afterwards, every frame was projected onto a canvas and the artists went to work–125 of them. They painted over the scenes, not precisely, but in the style of van Gogh. What’s so fascinating is that about 1,000 canvases were re-painted an average of 76 times, as each frame was altered bit by bit until the last frame of the shot. The black & white paintings (or scenes) are different in that they were not based on van Gogh’s iconic paintings. They’re used as backstory or to show other characters remembering incidents involving van Gogh.
Who are the filmmakers? A husband and wife team who wrote and directed. Hugh Welchman is a British animator. Dorota Kobiela is Polish, and she trained as a painter before switching to film. Loving Vincent is clearly a labor of love, many years in the making. The work began in 2008. Dorota was looking to combine her love of painting with film. She’d read van Gogh’s letters and been moved by them. Convinced that his own paintings were the best way to tell a story about him, she envisioned painting a very short film. Then she met the man who would become her husband, and the idea expanded into a feature-length film that’s now being released in 130 countries.
Vincent died in 1890. Eleven years later, in 1901, seventy-one of his paintings were exhibited in Paris. Today van Gogh is one of the most famous painters in the world. His paintings hang in the finest museums. In Amsterdam, The Van Gogh Museum gets 1.6 million visitors a year. While he’s considered a post-impressionist, some call him the father of modern art. And yet, a week before he died, he wrote to Theo, his brother and best friend, the man who sent him money so he could keep painting:
“Who am I in the eyes of most people? A nobody, a non-entity, an unpleasant person. Someone who has not, and never will have, any position in society, in short the lowest of the low. Well then, even if that was all absolutely true, one day I would like to show by my work, what this non-entity has in his heart.”
It’s heart-breaking, and yet the world is a more beautiful place because Vincent van Gogh followed his heart. As did the filmmakers.