During his lifetime, Vincent van Gogh probably considered himself a failure. Despite not picking up a brush until he was 28-years old, van Gogh produced over 800 paintings in an eight year span. Of those, he only sold one while living. Van Gogh suffered from drastic mood swings and depression. These days, he would probably be classified as bipolar. He has been described as extremely sensitive. His demons tortured him throughout his life and most likely contributed to his death, which is attributed to suicide. His demons were also the propulsive force behind a body of work that is arguably the most influential of the last 200 years.
“Loving Vincent” is set after van Gogh’s death. It follows the efforts of Armand Roulin, the son of a postman. Roulin’s father is a dear friend of van Gogh, and throughout the movie, he attempts to deliver a letter that van Gogh had sent to his brother, Theo. Roulin arrives in Paris only to find Theo dead. Upon the urging of his father, he continues on to find the next most appropriate person to deliver the letter to. Along the way, the story of van Gogh’s final days is told in flashbacks through a series of conversations that Roulin has with the people that knew him. Many questions are raised about the true nature of van Gogh’s death. At first reluctant to complete the task, Roulin soon becomes infatuated with not only the circumstances of van Gogh’s demise, but the man himself.
The process of how this film was created is fascinating. It’s a fully painted feature film that is animated. “Loving Vincent” was hand painted on canvas, in the style of van Gogh, by over 100 artists. The film was broken down into 853 main shots. Each artist would paint a key scene. That painting would then be photographed. The artist would then slightly modify the original work for the next shot. The process would then be repeated. Twelve shots compose one second of screen time. One hour of film time requires 43,200 paintings. This movie is 94-minutes long. The enormity of this project quickly comes into focus while watching the movie.
While painstakingly arduous to produce, this format lives and breathes on the screen. There is a quirky sizzle, a frenetic energy, brought about by the act of hand painting that bring the characters and scenery to life.
I couldn’t help but think of “King Kong” (1933), my all-time favorite movie, while marveling at the scratchy, textured charm of this film. The depth of personality that is generated couldn’t be done so without the raw time and effort required of analog fabrication.
But “Loving Vincent” is more than that.
“Loving Vincent” dives headfirst into the confusion and frustration felt by those who remain after an untimely death of a loved one or noted figure. The story is further complicated by the fact that van Gogh is now considered “great” and “important.” How could he take his own life? How could he deprive the worId of his talent? It is confusing to us living 127 years after his death, but, as noted early, he was the very definition of “unsuccessful” while living.
The film also examines mental illness, something that little was known about in the late-1800s. More than once, Roulin questions how van Gogh can go from happy to suicidal in a mere month. Modern medicine is now far more sophisticated in its understanding of the chemistry of the human body, but that doesn’t lessen the pain and bewilderment felt by those who know, deal with or lose a loved one because of a disorder.
Also particularly interesting is the arc that Roulin’s character experiences. He begins the film reluctantly searching out Theo van Gogh at his father’s bidding, and ends it with a genuine compulsion to find the truth about Vincent’s demise. I think that there is something so important, even sacred, about the search for truth—be it in one’s life or one’s art. It is something that is woefully rare in today’s avaricious society. It’s not not easy or convenient to produce or experience something merely for its intrinsic value. Art reminds us of the worth and importance of doing so.
“Loving Vincent” provides a rich viewing experience. Not only is it visually satisfying, it is a thoughtful and unexpectedly modern examination of illness, frustration and loss. “Loving Vincent” is thoughtful, curious and affecting. It successfully exposes the fragile heart of a sensitive artist in an utterly enthralling manner. It’s a genuine achievement.
“Loving Vincent” runs October 27 – November 9 at the Nightlight Cinema in Akron. Visit NightLightCinema.com for more information.