The Melbourne International Film Festival is on and of everything on offer I have managed to see one film. But it was a good one: Loving Vincent at the Forum Theatre. Twas three sittings to a sell out crowd, if that indicates the interest in this. To understand this work is a stunning creative and technical achievement probably sells it a bit short. In a nutshell, it is a sustained reflection upon the life of this one artist from the perspective of those who knew him by people who clearly care about his art.
More than one hundred professional artists produced more than 66,000 oil paintings in his style to animate this visual feast that was years in the making. I was worried it would be visually over-stimulating with the constant movement. Instead, I was entranced by the movement and colour. In addition, I found it emotionally overwhelming, capturing as it did the historical individuals van Gogh depicted in his works to give them new life through narrative.
The narrative wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t a day in the life of a tormented man or a history or biography. It was a mystery – a detective story, shifting between the full colour palette of the aftermath of van Gogh’s death, to his life, as remembered by his friends and colleagues, depicted in black and white, also unexpected. Within the self-imposed limitations of the film (only using people from his paintings as characters and only in locations he depicted) the story felt a little contrived or clumsy in the beginning. However, as the quest unfolds, I grew to appreciate how the narrative allowed Armand to develop and mature in a way that remains appropriate to his actual (real world) life.
I was excited to see it when I first heard about the undertaking and now that I have, I’m impressed by the skill of the brushwork, and the care taken to cast actors resembling the original portraits. This is important, as it was filmed first, like any movie is, and then frame by frame, illustrated in oil. Thus, the physical performances do matter. And each actor’s performance shines through, so Chris O’Dowd is clearly Chris O’Dowd, and also absolutely the character he performs, and so too with all of the actors. It was a treat to have one of the artists who worked on the film speak afterwards, and it was interesting in how he could point to the frames that were his work.
Furthermore, I appreciate the effort to work on a plot that honoured van Gogh’s complicated life and legacy without inventing his world, words and deeds. If this means this work is not a complete and sophisticated biography, then I am ok with that. Loving Vincent is like how people see his works, and how each of us with our differing perspectives see what we want to see, or are trained or educated to see. This film in oil paint, in imitation of his style, serves to make this more apparent.
And yet I am both puzzled and un-surprised at the negativity the mere idea of this film has inspired in some (just check the comments on the film’s Facebook page). I get that each of holds our own Platonic ideal of a life or work in our heads, but no one view is complete nor 100% correct. Personal understandings can be important, but not sacred nor immutable. So I beg people to withhold judgement until they see it for themselves. Unlike some film adaptions of historical lives, this film doesn’t ‘define’ and thus limit any single person’s idea of van Gogh. Rather, this is a text that takes the notion of many perspectives and runs with it to find this singular artist was and remains many things to different people. He was a madman, genius, tortured soul, brother, son, artist, client, victim, survivor, friend, dreamer and visionary.
Thus, I heartily recommend people see this film and find their perspective on van Gogh at home among the artists who brought their vision of his works to the screen.