Several agonizing years in the making, “Loving Vincent” has finally arrived with a vivid splash of color in theaters to hold cinephiles in thrall with its arresting, mesmerizing imagery.
I pity the reader who deems that statement hyperbolic, for it means you haven’t yet seen this movie, a work like no other in film history.
Again, hyperbole, but justifiable hyperbole, which if you think about it is just accurate, due praise for what the filmmakers set out to do: create a narrative film consisting of the animation of several thousand oil paintings. No Joke.
“Loving Vincent,” a Polish-U.K. co-production, tells the story of the weeks leading up to the death of Vincent Van Gogh, the flamboyantly tortured Dutch artist, in the Paris-adjacent town of Auvers-sur-Oise. He spent his nights there in a small room on the second floor of the Auberge Ravoux inn, which is now an historical landmark and museum; it was in that room where he died of a bullet wound to the torso, July 29, 1890.
Viewers who go into the movie theater uninformed of the plot’s gist will be surprised that, rather than some idyllic meditation on the final days of one of the father’s of modern art, the movie, follows the structure of classic film noir who-done-its like the “Big Sleep” or “Chinatown.” The central mystery is exactly how Van Gogh was shot, conventional wisdom holds the act was self-inflicted, but the amateur gumshoe who functions as the movie’s protagonist comes to doubt this assumption.
Aside from creating a movie entirely from a mind-numbingly meticulous and time-consuming process never before attempted – extreme even for a medium known for detail-minded obsessives – its directors (Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, from Poland and Britain, respectively) make stunning use as visual and narrative points of departure many of Van Gogh’s most recognizable paintings, including Starry Night, whose upper most reaches – stars and clouds – occupy the movie’s opening shot, which then pans down to the town below and into a tavern where a young man, Armand Roulin, slouches head-in-arms at a table (a version of Van Gogh’s “Night Cafe” brought to life) next to a bottle. He, not Van Gogh, is the film’s protagonist, a bitter, at-times violent young man with seemingly little purpose other than to swill alcohol and engage in fisticuffs with hapless citizens of his southern French village. In other words, he’s a classic film noir anti-hero: intransigent and mad at the world, but possessed of an essential decency that only needs a cause to catalyze it.
That impetus comes in the form of a letter which his postman father (subject for “Portrait of Postman Roulin”) received from Van Gogh shortly before his death, with orders that it to be sent to his brother, Theo Van Gogh. The postman’s many attempts at sending the letter through the mail having all failed, he demands his son deliver the letter to Theo in person.
And so begins a hero’s quest, one which starts innocuously with a simple task but ends up taking its central personage on a journey through not only space, but also back in time vis-a-vis flashbacks (painted stunningly in black-and-white) to the life of the artist told to him by various people who had come into contact with Van Gogh at different points in his tumultuous, lonely life.
One of the laudable achievements of the movie is that many of its characters – all created from portraits Van Gogh painted of people he knew – are compelling and multi-faceted, given full-blooded life by an international cast of first-rate thespians. Their filmed performances provided the visual templates – together with Van Gogh’s paintings – for the sea of canvases pumped out by a gang of 115 painters from around the world. It’s a startling example of the merging of two disparate arts to create expressive power greater than the sum of its parts, like aioli whipped up in a Provencal kitchen from an emulsion of oil and egg.
Innovative techniques, well-crafted dialogue and story not-withstanding, the chief pleasure of watching “Loving Vincent” lies in the way it realizes to some extent a desire we’ve all had when confronted by a compelling work of visual art: to enter and explore it its depths, to find out, for instance, the source of Dr. Gachet’s melancholy in Van Gogh’s portrait of him, or see how much gratuity the white-clad waiter picks up from a table in “Cafe Terrace at Night” and whether or not he mutters an imprecation at the departed guest, who may have left behind a single, insulting penny.
Great art has that effect on its observer: to elicit a powerful urge to be immersed in, subsumed and carried away by the product of another person’s imagination. This film goes remarkably far in satisfying that bittersweet yearning for the unattainable, so much so that you may find yourself returning to the movie theater for a second viewing.
Several Guadalajara cinemas are showing the film, including Cinemex Sania on Avenida Vallarta. Those who wish to see the film lakeside will need to agitate loudly in front of local movie theaters, preferably with picket signs featuring Van Gogh prints and/or severed ears. Go to lovingvincent.com for a fascinating look into the film-making process and to buy canvases featured in the movie.