Director: Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman
Cast: Robert Gulaczyk, Douglas Booth, Jerome Flynn, Saoirse Ronan, Eleanor Tomlinson
A lot of things about Loving Vincent jump out at you in very literal terms. Every frame, quite literally, is a painting. About 65,000 frames. Each one of them an oil painting on canvas. It is a labour of love, and again, in both literal and figurative ways. To Vincent van Gogh, the Dutch post-Impressionist painter, revered and celebrated only posthumously, who lived a short life of struggle, suffering from mental health issues, ultimately taking his own life. The title too lays it out in simple terms. It is about loving Vincent, more about the act of salutation than signature, from directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, and the 125 or so painters who have worked on the film.
The film begins one year after Van Gogh’s suicide, when Postman Roulin requests his son Armand to deliver a letter from Van Gogh meant for Van Gogh’s brother, as one last ditch effort. Armand, who is not very fond of Van Gogh due to an earlier altercation grudgingly accepts his father’s plea. The letter though takes Armand, and us, through a path of discovery. What sort of life did Van Gogh, who took to painting only during these last years of his life, lead? Who were his friends, if any, and acquaintances? Armand meets several characters —the inn-keeper Adeline Ravoux, chirpy, spirited and whose memories of Van Gogh, who had a room at the inn, are incredibly vivid.
The elusive Dr. Gachet, who shared Van Gogh’s passion for the brush but not his talent, and had developed a friendship. Then there is Dr. Gachet’s daughter, at the piano, exuding an air of mystery and their housekeeper Louise, who makes it clear there was no love lost between her and Van Gogh. These are the moments when Loving Vincent comes to life, it transcends its gimmick by interesting us in plot and detail. We are at once captivated by Van Gogh’s melancholia, his yearning for validation as a painter and his mental state of being. We also become curious about what really went down in Auvers-sur-Oise - was Van Gogh murdered or did he really commit suicide? What was his relationship with Dr. Gachet’s daughter? Armand begins to understand and sympathise with Van Gogh’s issues, and sees him in new light.
Kobiela and Welchman make it as difficult as possible for the artists. The painters love to show-off occasionally as a result. Smoke fills up the screen even as we see the hazy visuals right through them. We see Armand’s reflection on a train window, perfectly living in harmony with what is on the other side of the tracks. We see images on water and shadows moving in sync.
Adeline’s eyes, ears, cheekbones, all light up every time she tells a story about Van Gogh. Hers is probably the only cheerful character in a film filled with people grappling with some form of loss, a profound sadness wrapped in mystery pervading every frame. Vincent van Gogh’s own paintings form the visuals in several notable sequences—Wheatfield with Crows, The Night Cafe, The Yellow House, Cafe Table with Absinthe, Portrait of Pere Tanguy.
The most famous of them all makes its appearance towards the end, when the film has made your heart heavy and then trampled all over it, played over Lianne La Havas cover of Don McLean’s Starry Starry Night. “How you suffered for your sanity, How you tried to set them free”. One of the greatest tributes from a school of artists to their master. You may find your fingers in the vicinity of your eyes.