“Loving Vincent” is a beautiful movie to just sit back and regard. I heard an audience member say just before the movie started that a friend of hers said that it was just like being transported into the world of the paintings, and honestly I can’t think of a better description than that. Just like Mary Poppins hopping into a sidewalk drawing, this films drops you into a environment filled with bursting colour and odd characters and wonderfully imaginative landscapes. The amazing artistry is on display in every single shot. Even the black-and-white flashback scenes that are based on photographs of that era are so detailed and lifelike that you wonder if perhaps those were real people instead of the result of some very dedicated and talented painters. Time and time again I found myself admiring the colours and forms or some odd detail that changed from one frame to the next, enjoying the feeling that this is how the artist has seen the world and chosen to reflect it back to us, and just letting my mind wander and watch as the details of this novel world just drifted by.
And I have to say that because of that I walked away from “Loving Vincent” feeling unsatisfied that the story didn’t hold my attention enough so that I could appreciate both the life and art of Mr. Van Gogh. Each image is so beautiful and varied with subtle changes here and there that you have a sense of don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it wonder washing over you as you sit in the theatre. On a visual level I was completly engaged, which makes it even harder to criticize the storyline because I wanted to love this visual masterpiece as a complete film so much more than how I ended up appreciating it. Thankfully the visuals are so captivating that you can enjoy it without a strong story holding it up and the final act where the plot transitions from being less about how Van Gogh died and more about how he lived recovers it enough to make “Loving Vincent” a worthwhile endeavour.
As a film, well let’s call myself an “afficiando” today, I love and admire the work and challenge and dedication it must have took to see this movie get made right through to the very end. But I don’t think the main story, especially as it was presented was the best framework on which to set this canvas. Mainly, the problem stems from the fact that I didn’t go into the theatre ever once thinking that there had been any kind of major controversy over how Van Gogh died. I think you would find most people would care more about Who Shot J.R. than Who Shot V.G. And given the format of how they are trying to create a narrative around a series of unconnected paintings, I’m more than willing to give them a little leeway into how they handle moving the plot forward. But, honestly, I never once believed or understood Armand’s motivation in solving the ‘mystery’ of Vincent’s death to the detriment of everything in his own life. This is compounded by the problem of the filmmakers themselves seeming to admit that at best, it was an accidental shooting and not a murder, that the whole scenario is completly anti-climatic. This whole false intrigue didn’t add anything signifigant to the movie and I would argue actually takes something away from it.
That did change, however, at about two-thirds into the film where Marguerite tells Armand that it’s Van Gogh’s life that mattered, and not his death. At that point I was finally able to understand what the filmmakers were trying to say. I found that was a much more engaging hook than this Rashomon-effect of wildly different viewpoints of Van Gogh’s character. We were given such opposite viewpoints as to what Van Gogh was like, whether he was calm and dedicated or wild and crazy, that I just stopped caring about which was true or not. And while cliché that the only way to know an artist is through his work, I think I would have vastly enjoyed the story more if it explored questions such as what gave him the motivation to paint, why does he seem obsessed at some points and disengaged at others? They even touch upon this briefly about the question of his mental health by saying he was in an asylum and that his relationship with Dr. Gachet was a form of therapy, but these threads are quickly picked up and discarded without being explored further, which I think would have made for a much more cohesive account of his life.
I definitely enjoyed the experience of watching the film. It is singular and certainly worth seeing, but I also have to say that I wouldn’t want to watch every film if it were made this way. The medium is very much part of the message with this and I have to applaud all the creators for having a vision to create something truly original. Technically amazing in more ways than one, with a beautifully composed music score to accompany the paintings, the artists invovlved in combining two wildly different artforms – still-lifes melded with a motion picture – have given birth to something new and unique. “Loving Vincent” ends up being a one-of-a-kind visual masterpiece of a film that is muted slightly by a paint-by-numbers plot.