Image from http://www.lovingvincent.com
In the first few frames of the movie it becomes clear that the title ‘Loving Vincent’ isn’t simply about what those left behind after his death do, but it’s a description of the man himself: he signs his letters ‘your loving Vincent.’ The story painted by 100 dedicated artists in this Polish-led project is steered by people who encountered van Gogh in life, who are all protective of their memories of him to different extents, but it’s Vincent’s quiet, enigmatic presence that lends the film its weightiest emotions.
We follow the perspective of the young postman’s son, Armand, as he tries to deliver a dead man’s letter to his dead brother. With no van Goghs to deliver to, the reluctant errand-boy finds enough to perplex him about Vincent’s death that he decides to seek out the Doctor who claimed to have helped Vincent to overcome his melancholia before he killed himself. The pretext is that this Dr Gachet might have a forwarding address for Theo van Gogh’s widow, but Armand soon finds himself seeking a more sinister explanation for what happened to his father’s friend.
As Armand, Douglas Booth is identifiable through his painterly counterpart (as are all the cast members; Chris O’Dowd is the only one who’s something of a distraction, with his distinctive twinkly eyes peering out over a somewhat ludicrous beard). Booth is actually a fairly good centrepoint for the narrative: his Armand is petulant and impatient with his errand at first, but soon turns his impatience on the incompatible stories of the villagers who witnessed van Gogh’s final days. He flirts languidly with the innkeeper’s daughter, somehow raises a little charm from the judgemental house-maid at Gachet’s, defends the defenceless and listens eagerly to the gossip of all concerned. He’s a brawler and an affable drunk too, bridging a wide-eyed outsider’s perspective with the absinthe-induced haze of nineteenth century France that we dimly grasp through the art of van Gogh’s contemporaries. (As a big fan of Toulouse Lautrec I’ll admit to being stung by his background role, banging a table in some Parisian dive).
Sure, it often feels a bit glib; life goes on in the village, and plenty of people thought plenty of uncharitable things about van Gogh, and Armand’s ‘investigation’ is blundering and insensitive. I rather liked the contrast of his unsophisticated character with the beauty of the film, however. Armand, despite giving the impression that he agrees with the villagers about the dead artist’s oddities, clearly feels his own protectiveness over the legacy of this man whom his father cared so much for. And just as Adeline wants to protect her memory of Vincent against the memories cultivated by the ‘stuck-up’ Doctor’s family, so the Doctor’s family wish to preserve their own view of Vincent; so too with the ferryman and the peasant and the paint dealer. Throughout all these encounters we must wait for Gachet himself though: he’s invoked here and there, given the sinister air of a jealous father by some, the identity of a bitter, failed artist by others. He turns out to be a mixture of these things and more — and less, when he finally invites Armand down to tea and reveals in a gentle tone how close he was to Vincent by how well he knows of Vincent’s fondness for Armand and his family.
As a professional relationship, that between Gachet and van Gogh was clearly wanting, but the genuine affection between them brings the film to its emotional crescendo as Gachet recalls their argument, and sits by the dying Vincent’s bedside receiving his absolution. ‘A letter for a letter’ lets Vincent finally speak his piece, first through a piece Theo’s widow copied out for Gachet, and then through the letter that Armand carries throughout the film, again copied and shared by the widow. In his own words, van Gogh pours out his love for the world and the people he is close to, and I suppose the ambition of the film-makers was to help us to see things as he did for the duration of the movie.
The hand-painted frames were so worth seeing on a cinema screen: swirling, pulsing waves of colour that never made me feel nauseous or disoriented as I’d worried they initially would. Armand in his bright yellow jacket is as effective a visual anchor as he is a narrative anchor, wandering through van Gogh’s yellow fields and rooms and loitering under his acid-yellow stars and street-lights. The effect of weather on a van Gogh style landscape is also a thing of beauty, whether it’s the wind in the trees, the heavy streaks of falling rain, or the changes in light, shade and colour that go with both. There are pauses in this richness too, with all flashbacks taking on a less expressionistic style in greyscale paints. The past feels claustrophobic and dim when those who are left dwell on Vincent’s final moments, or on arguments they wish they could take back. But even so, some of the greyscale memories are happier ones, and the team of artists behind the movie are as adept at showing a bright sunny day or a torrential downpour in the more realistic style of the flashbacks.
Loving Vincent is also peppered with more specific references to his paintings: a bunch of sunflowers in Gaugin’s hand, the familiar-looking denizens of a bar, the angle at which we first see Gachet’s daughter at the piano. I’ve only the passing familiarity with his full and prolific output that I also have with the various theories that inevitably attach themselves to the premature death of a unique talent. Maybe because of this passing familiarity, I ended up really liking the film’s blend of each villager’s perspective: everything from recurrent melancholia to loneliness to spurned love was given as an excuse for van Gogh’s death. But where the story had to settle for one theory it seemed to rest on the opposite: the love and connections he felt with others he was close to made him see himself as less significant. Rene denied his involvement right up until his death, so why not leave it and say that only van Gogh knew precisely how he got there. The film doesn’t end with a maudlin or bleak message, but one that came from his own words, speaking of his love of life and experience. It’s also what comes out in so many of his paintings, after all.