Film & Television

Loving Vincent, a Masterful Tribute to the Father of Modern Art

Loving Vincent was produced, as many animated features are, using a rotoscope. Live actors were filmed in costumes against representative set pieces or green screen, then projected onto glass so the film’s talented artists could handpaint the frame. Each completed painting was captured on film, and then the artist would paint over it, making slight changes to create movement over time. A second of the finished film comprises about 24 of these individually painted frames. The movie is clearly a labor of love by all involved. Remarkably, it was made for just $5.5 million, considerably less than most Hollywood films, and a small fraction of what Van Gogh’s paintings are worth today. “Irises” sold for a record $53.9 million in 1987, and his “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” sold for $82.5 million in 1990.

The cast includes familiar faces (reinterpreted in Van Gogh’s style). The artist, appearing in black and white memory scenes is played by Polish stage actor Robert Gulaczyk. Douglas Booth (Noah, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and most recently a standout in The Limehouse Golem) serves as the narrator, Armand. An aimless young man in Arles, he is encouraged by his father, postmaster Joseph Roulin (played by an endearing Chris O’Dowd from Bridesmaids to track down Vincent’s brother Theo and deliver a last letter from the artist. Armand goes first to Paris, where he learns that Theo too has died. Intrigued, he retraces Van Gogh’s steps, landing in Auvers and collecting firsthand — and often conflicting — accounts of Vincent’s final days. Adeline (Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson), an innkeeper’s daughter, remembers him fondly. A boatman (Poldark himself, Aidan Turner) recalls a secret affair Van Gogh was having with Dr. Gachet’s daughter (Saiorse Ronan of Brooklyn). Her housekeeper (Helen McCrory) insists that he was not just mad, but “evil.” Local Dr. Mazery (Bill Thomas) claims that the fatal wound could not have been self-inflicted. Suspicions are raised about a young bully, Rene (Marcin Sosinski), but all roads seem to lead to Dr. Gachet (Jerome Flynn from Game of Thrones), who not only tended Vincent after his release from the asylum, but was among the last to see him alive. If you’ve studied Van Gogh’s work, you’ll recognize all of these figures as his models.

Armand’s investigation is inconclusive, and open to interpretation. Whether you leave the cinema with a new theory or come back full circle to the familiar story, you will have greater understanding and appreciation for the artist and his work. In truth, the mystery is less engaging than the innovative and often breathtaking way in which it’s told. In fact, if Loving Vincent were a traditional movie, with live actors, and realistic sets and costumes, it would be fairly hum-drum. The style here out-trumps the substance. And, it’s far more sophisticated than the choice for music over the final credits: Lianne La Havas singing Don McLean’s 1971 “Starry Starry Night.”  It’s also a bit off-putting that virtually all of the actors, playing mainly French characters, have British accents. But, with so much beauty to look at, it’s not so difficult to overlook these gripes.

Loving Vincent makes you wonder where Van Gogh’s artistic genius ended and his madness began. Were his swirling surrealist images how he saw the world in his imagination? Or literally what he saw?

Being in his passionate paintings even for 90 minutes, you begin to understand why he might have longed for peace. In one of his letters, a despairing Van Gogh wrote, “I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.” In another, he pleaded, “How can I be useful, of what service can I be? There is something inside me, what can it be?”

More than a century and a quarter after his death, he remains of inarguably precious use and service. He can still show us the wild and outrageous beauty otherwise hidden in everyday nature. He still makes us see the world differently.

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