Cinematic Releases: Loving Vincent (2017) - Reviewed

Few films are as visually as ambitious as Loving Vincent, a dramatic and thoughtful quest through the life and death of painter Vincent Van Gogh; while animating using paint as a medium is not a new concept, every frame of this movie is a canvas oil painting in the style of Van Gogh himself, a feat which took over one hundred different painters to achieve. Emotionally compelling, Loving Vincent asks us to reexamine the Van Goghs we may know in our own lives, and our relationship to their suffering. It posits that things we take for granted about a person’s nature may not, in fact, be as much a given as we believe, and suggests we ought to look more deeply at ourselves and how we treat those who are different from us. 

The film transitions between darkened, black-and-white painted flashbacks reminiscent of charcoal renderings and the bursting, vibrant current timeline, expressed as Van Gogh himself would have painted it in scenes of russet, of ochre and azure. Every minute detail is formatted to mimic Vincent’s trademarked oil styles, and while it is easy to see that many hands touched the canvas, it flows remarkably well from start to finish in dreamy, stream-of-consciousness visuals. We follow Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), son of the postmaster through whose hands Van Gogh’s letters found their ways back and forth during life, tasked with delivering the final letter penned by the artist himself to the brother who had loved him so. Hesitant, and armed with preconceived notions about the painter and his mental state, Armand discovers this is not the simple task he expects and winds up fully immersed in recreating Vincent’s last days on earth – and he begins to suspect things were not as they at first appeared. 

Of course, the dramatization yields a bit of exaggeration, and it is not until the credits roll that the actual facts in the lives of the characters are fully uncovered – but Loving Vincent is capable in its handling of the sensitive questions it raises. One finds oneself challenging the nature of mental health, of suicidal despair, of the frailty inherent in the connections between human beings. One is encouraged by this film to examine more closely the threads connecting oneself and one’s own life to the lives of others – and as Armand berates himself for his own failings, the film’s eye turns inward, asking us whether we have done enough….have we been vigilant to the needs of those we profess to love, those we may call friends? 

Certainly, there are scenes during which the visual aspects overwhelm the rest; there are stretches of dialog that don’t seem to lead anywhere, and one might be forgiven for accusing this movie of talking around itself at times. The sheer beauty of the painted animation can be distracting from the story, particularly since the focus is so often on a character who can only appear in flashbacks. But Armand’s vicarious experiences of who Vincent was – and who he is, posthumously, in the world he inhabited daily –is, at heart, the tale of realization that sometimes life cannot be enough. Sometimes the absence in the negative spaces of life speak louder than do the shapes of things, the shapes of the feelings with which art seeps into the soul. 

With a maudlin, wistful spirit, the colors drift in and out of the shapes of people and places, evoking the ephemeral nature of our fleeting existences in this world. It wonders in whispers that cajole the heart within its cage – what is it to be enough, what is it to matter, what is it to find joy and solace in a life devoid of contact and connection? How many thousands of fathoms deep went Vincent Van Gogh’s loneliness, and what does the legacy of that loneliness have to teach those of us who create? And, just as importantly, what does that legacy have to say those who choose to love such creators? 

Loving Vincent is a ponderous film, but in the sense that it is a thoughtful exploration of human nature and the nature of art both as healer and tormentor. It uses its immensely unique visual style to tell the story of a man whom the world largely ignored in life, but whose influence is widely felt throughout the movements of art that came after his death. The simultaneous enormity and banality of human mortality, of our finiteness, is very much a fiber in the fabric of this beautiful film; even when it appears to be cutting off its own ear to spite its face, it speaks to the strangeness of what remains after we die to those who occupy the spaces we have left behind, and to the Starry Night swirling above and beyond the breath of our hopes and dreams.

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Dana Culling