Film and Book Reviews

The unfathomable loneliness of an extraordinary man

FilmLoving Vincent's artistic achievement is extraordinary, although frequently disconcerting.

By Wendy Knowlton

November 14 2017There’s nothing wrong with wondering about the mechanics of film production; however if a concern with process prevents immersion in the film itself, something is lost. Loving Vincent does not intentionally strive for an alienation effect, but in a way, this is what it achieves. The 100 artists who slaved in oils to produce over 65000 frames in the style of Van Gogh have animated well known scenes and portraits in a visually mesmerizing manner; however the labour behind their painstaking brushstrokes is so obvious it’s ultimately distracting. The film’s murder mystery premise is not uninteresting, but in conjunction with such rich visual bombardment it’s too much.

Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tomlinson) mourns the loss of Vincent Van Gogh

Despite this, it is still a film worth seeing. The artistic achievement is extraordinary, although frequently disconcerting. Van Gogh’s landscapes could be tortured, and here familiar stars whirl and morph into something new as colours clash and brush strokes dance as if under strobe lighting. Well known actors are transformed into oil-painted versions of themselves so one is looking at a Van Gogh figure but also a familiar and contemporary face. It is an odd experience, but a fascinating one.

It is clear that there are strange aspects to the accepted version Van Gogh’s death, but as the doctor’s daughter, Marguerite Gachet, points out, focussing on the way Van Gogh died doesn’t seem nearly as important as looking at his life. Rather than following the attempts of the postman’s son, Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) to solve a potential mystery, what is more interesting is the depiction of small town rivalries and prejudices, and how those who encountered the artist in the last months of his life saw him. The women Roulin questions are particularly intriguing. Louise Chevalier (Helen McCrory), the Doctor’s rigidly pious but judgemental housekeeper, declares that “We’ve had enough weeping over that nutcase in this household,” but the daughter of Dr Gachet (Saoirse Ronan), immortalised in the painting of “Marguerite Gachet at the Piano” regularly takes flowers to his grave. Refined but discreet she says little of their relationship, but the rather jealous possessiveness of the innkeeper’s daughter, Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tomlinson) is obvious as she warns Roulin to distrust everything the Gachets say.

One suspects that those artists who worked for months to produce only seconds or so of screen time would have felt some affinity with Van Gogh. When he died in obscure poverty, Van Gogh had sold only one painting and those behind the scenes of this film are almost as anonymous, as their names flash by in the credits. The use of Don McLean’s Vincent as those credits roll may be predictable, but it is still hauntingly beautiful. The audience will leave, sad at the thought of the “unfathomable empty loneliness” of the talented but troubled Van Gogh, but determined to return to the original works that inspired this film, and appreciate them once more.