loving vincent

review by robyn kilroy

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The great Vincent van Gogh once said, “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together”, a quote that I believe sums up the work of Dorota Kobiela’s new film Loving Vincent, the world’s first fully painted film. It took two years to complete this film, with over 100 painters painting the 65,000 frames on over 1,000 canvases, and a previous four years before that to master the technique. The result of this dedication brings the audience an aesthetic delight as we are brought into the swirling magnificence of these painted frames, inspired by Van Gogh’s work.

The film tells the story of Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), an at first reluctant messenger who must deliver a letter written by Vincent to his brother a year after his death. This journey soon turns into a journey for the truth as Armand tries to solve the mystery as to why Vincent killed himself, and even if he actually killed himself. I was concerned coming into the film that the narrative would be neglected due to the emphasis on the aesthetic quality of the film, however I found the plot to be compelling, playing off the mysteriousness of Van Gogh’s character and circumstances of his suicide. This is also thanks to the flashbacks of Van Gogh’s (played in this film by Robert Gulaczyk) life, which help show the impact the characters in this film have on his life.

The characters are based off the real people in Van Gogh’s life and are styled in the portraits he painted of them. This includes the portrait of Armand Roulin, who’s look in this film is inspired by van Gogh’s portrait of him which he painted in 1888. The same goes for Joseph Roulin (played by Chris O’Dowd), a loyal friend of van Gogh’s, whose look was inspired by his portrait in 1888. I’m familiar enough with Van Gogh’s work (I’m no expert but I like his paintings) and because of this I felt a sense of familiarity with the characters and imagery I saw on screen. For example, when Armand first encounters Marguerite Gachet (Saoirse Ronan). We see her playing piano, which is instantly linked to Van Gogh’s painting “Marguerite Gachet at the Piano” (1890).

Of course, how can I write about Loving Vincent without touching on its aesthetics? The paintings used in this film are so masterfully edited together to bring the sensation of movement that I sometimes found myself forgetting that they are in fact paintings. By using Van Gogh’s painting style as influence, you can’t help but feel transported into the world of Vincent van Gogh; how he saw the world. While the majority of the film is painted in elaborate colours, the sections of flashback on Van Gogh’s life are painted in black and white. This is extremely effective as it helps portray van Gogh’s life as a struggling painter, tormented by his inner demons and society around him.  

Overall, I would call this film a triumph, linking the two already closely-knit worlds of painting and film even more together. Not only is this film beautiful, it also provides us with an excellent story of the world’s most celebrated and enigmatic painters.