“You want to know so much about his death, but what do you know of his life?”
This 2017 experimental animated biographical drama about the life of Vincent van Gogh came into existence thanks to Dorota Kobiela’s efforts. While studying the artist’s techniques, the Polish filmmaker came across his letters, and was left touched by the story sealed within them. Inspired, she directed the Polish-UK co-production with her husband, Hugh Welchman. Though this film is described primarily as a drama, one could argue it falls into the category of a detective adventure – a surprisingly captivating one.
Loving Vincent takes place one year after Vincent van Gogh’s death. Encouraged by his postman father (Chris O’Dowd), Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) sets out to deliver Vincent’s last letter to his brother, Theo. The task quickly turns arduous, as he learns not only that Vincent’s brother has also passed away, but that the artist’s story might not be as banal as Armand first imagined. The mystery thickens as he tears into the contradictory snippets of events he manages to squeeze out of Dr. Gachet (Jerome Flynn), Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tolinson) and Margaret Gachet (Saoirse Ronan).
Much like Richard Linklater’s 2006 A Scanner Darkly, Loving Vincent uses a form of rotoscoping. However, the process of making it was far more tangled. Once the film was completed with a live-action cast – with elements of visual effects and CG animation – each individual frame was shot onto a blank canvas, and over a hundred artists painted over each image. The 66,960 frames took six years to complete. The aim was to translate and reimagine Vincent’s paintings into the medium of film. As a result, the characters’ movements merge with a pulsating background, creating an animated conversation with ghosts; a representation of the elusive fragments of Vincent van Gogh’s soul trapped in each painting. It seems fitting, as the film’s pervading theme is one of truth.
The world resulting from the incorporation of many of Vincent’s paintings, and the eternalised people in each one, creates an imagined mystery surrounding his life and death. It quickly becomes evident that the film is not simply about paying homage to an enigmatic, underappreciated artist ahead of his time. It presents an intricate, deeply engrossing whodunnit mystery – toying with the audience’s trust in one specific narrative.
We are walked through a nonverbal conversation about mental health, including its unspeakableness in the 19th century. Loneliness bursts into colour as we witness the demise of a lost soul. In the end, we are left feeling a hollowness resulting not from the lack of answers, but the insoluble essence of life. Logic flees, replaced by emotion. Empathy. Despair. And when the screen goes dark, we find ourselves taking on the form of the same troubled ghosts frozen in his paintings.
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