cw: suicide, depression
Death of the Author
The first time I saw a Van Gogh painting was at the Art Institute of Chicago, "The Poet's Garden" (1888). It's unassuming. There's not even a subject to it, really. Just an awkwardly large foreground that has little to no compositional value. It's small as well: at least, compared to the other impressionist works in that space, which include Seurat's pointillist masterpiece "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte", which most people go to see, and which takes up an entire wall in the Impressionist space. Yet, for some reason, this quiet painting captured me. In particular, I remember just staring at the weeping willow for what felt like hours. I pulled out my sketchbook just to try to make some lines that were as subtle and suggestive. Something as soft and yet cutting in cascading curious shapes. Even the snotty, sickly sky piqued my interest. It was only once I checked the placard so I could title my sketch after the painting's name that I realized that the artist was none other than the famed Vincent Van Gogh.
Before that moment, I had thought that the man's work was overrated, and that people were just drawn to his oeuvre because of the scandals surrounding his life. The ear, his "insanity", the rumored tragedy that he only ever sold one painting, his sad young death... I'm of the sort where I try and know the least amount possible about an artist I admire since the quality of their work is realistically what concerns me. Thus I was completely blind-sided by my discovery that the man himself - the legend! - made a painting so humble and yet so absorbing. I was almost mad at myself for liking it, but madder still at Van Gogh for his posthumous un-pretentiousness. I realized what had ruined Van Gogh for me initially was the hype surrounding his art, and not the art itself. Which, I discovered, had grown to limit my appreciation for his work.
And while I still agree with the theory of the Death of the Author on paper, my ire towards Loving Vincent comes directly from my personal experience relating to the man of Vincent Van Gogh himself: not separately from his work, but almost because of it. I, too, am an artist, at times with crappy composition and bad perspective. I live primarily on coffee and alcohol, and sometimes all I have to eat is a loaf of stale bread. I, too, also suffer from depression, and have contemplated suicide numerous time. Going back and reading some of Van Gogh's letters and digging deeper into his personal life makes me see more and more of myself in his work, which does add value to his paintings, contrary to my previous beliefs. And knowing that he died taking his own life adds a gravity to his body of work that makes viewing his paintings almost painful. That he created so much while suffering so deeply is hard to bear, especially since I feel that I know how he suffered, but you can absolutely see it in his paintings. With this in mind, Loving Vincent was poised to be a tender, emotionally-charged exploration into the inner landscape of this widely-acclaimed artist who was simultaneously a lonely, deeply sad man. A closer look at the world inside his head that informed the way he crafted his paintings. Unfortunately, this film takes the complete opposite approach, to its great detriment.
Loving Vincent takes a fantastic premise for a film and manages to create a completely shallow work of art, almost in direct contrast with Van Gogh's actual work. Once again, we aren't allowed to enjoy the man's art in and of itself. His paintings are brought to life as a cheap device to draw us into a pedestrian procedural drama that takes place surrounding his death. Almost nothing in the film helps illuminate the figure of Van Gogh or his worldview at all, other than that he had nosy, obnoxious neighbors, whom make up the central characters in the narrative. This unfolds into two gigantic problems for the film: on the one hand, Loving Vincent devalues his art by making cheap copies of his greatest works, and on the other, re-animates Van Gogh's corpse for the sake of spectacle.
The Tone Problem
One of the hardest parts about suffering through Loving Vincent is the effect the animation has on the tone of the film overall. It is a difficult movie to watch from the opening rehashing of Starry Night all the way up until the long-awaited self-portrait of Van Gogh that closes the film. Not to mention the insufferably banal black-and-white flashback sequences that look nothing at all like Van Gogh's work (despite being our only footage featuring Van Gogh himself) are completely forgettable, hence I will focus my attention on the oil-painted sequences that mimic his works. The moving painting aspect of the film is so visually distracting that in order to even watch the thing you have to train your eyes to forget you're looking at a series of paintings. Thus, the main conceit of its creation is rendered null from the get-go. Just the sheer amount of visual detail you have to take in is staggering, considering each frame probably took hours if not days to produce. Just thinking back at how long I stared at just one Van Gogh painting really hits home how terrifying squashing 65,000 paintings into a 2-hour film is. The whole point of a painting is to sit and look at it: to let it wash over you, to keep coming back to it and finding different details. To make a film out of thousands of individual paintings, while a noble pursuit in terms of advancing the art of animation, literally destroys the very notion of what a painting is. And, choosing Van Gogh's visually busy style was probably the worst artistic decision they could have made. His paintings are uncomfortable to look at. His subject matters are difficult and intense. The sheer amount of brush strokes and contrasting colors is visually unsettling even when still on a canvas. Loving Vincent takes that nausea and makes it move, which gives an effect similar to the feeling of taking a carnival ride after eating too much cotton candy. The frame rate is so mind-boggling that within the first few minutes I felt like I wanted to leave the theater, or at least sit farther back, so I wouldn't get ill. So, realistically, instead of recreating the magic of Van Gogh's paintings, the animation turns the frenetic manic energy of his style up to a fever pitch, making it almost unwatchable. This makes the pedestrian whodunit plot even more erroneous given that it doesn't match the style of the visuals in the least.
This leads to my second gripe about the animation: the roto-scoping. Roto-scoping is the practice of tracing live filmed actors instead of creating keyframe animation from scratch, which is cheaper than traditional animation. Sometimes, this is used to great artistic effect, like in A Scanner Darkly which deliberately disorients the audience by messing with the faces of the characters. This alters the viewers' perception of the characters' mental states and identities, which is a central theme of the film. Loving Vincent, however, uses roto-scoping for seemingly no reason. For example, the main character, Armand, is based on a subject from one of Van Gogh's many portraits. Instead of basing his character design in the film off of the unique and memorable figure portrayed in the painting - that presumably belonged to a real-life person - they merely traced over the live actor's face instead. This not only flattens the expressiveness of the character's faces, but knowing each actor who plays each portrait is extremely distracting. Instead of looking at Van Gogh's paintings, we are looking at a Hollywood-ization of his paintings. While most of the subjects of Van Gogh's portraits are simple rural folk who are perfectly bland if not downright strange-looking, in this film they chose to assign recognizable actors to these characters, including Academy Award-nominated Saoirse Ronan and comic actor Chris O'Dowd. This continually pulled me out of the action, for instead of looking at a rural landlady or bumpkin, we are looking at attractive and/or famous Hollywood actors. This coupled with the fact that all the characters speak in English with British accents despite the entire film being set in France (with the titular character being Dutch) makes their aesthetic choices regarding the character design quite unfortunate.
Not only does the roto-scoping sort of destroy the visual effect of the film, turning his portraits into actual characters makes the plot of the story into a game of "spot the painting", once again cheapening the impact of Van Gogh's work. All of the nuance in the portraits is lost in the film, which turns these unique individuals who could have been unique characters into mere props to move the plot forward, what little plot there actually is. And even with the flawed style of the painting, the canned dialogue and boring police procedural plot makes the characters seem even flatter. So while the roto-scoping takes all of the emotion out of the character's faces, the script takes the life out of the action. Which leads to my overall critique of the film: its content.
"Loving Vincent" Egocentrically
Just in how the type of animation erodes the good qualities possessed by Van Gogh's paintings, the plot of the film is truly disastrous in terms of depreciating Van Gogh's personality and lived experience. Instead of focusing on the man himself, he is barely present in the film, except in the form of inane flashbacks. In fact, one could argue the film isn't even about Van Gogh at all. All of the action centers around the busybody townspeople tittering amongst themselves after Van Gogh takes his own life with a rifle before the film even begins. Every nosy neighbor, every former drinking companion, even old lovers are pulled into the main character Armand's misguided attempt to track down the already-dead painter. And each has a horrid theory on what "really" happened to Van Gogh, none of which are based on reality or even on accounts written at the time concerning his death. For example, the Postman asks seemingly rhetorically, "How can someone go from being completely calm to suicidal in just six weeks?" Unfortunately, he is not joking. The filmmakers clearly know so little about depression they don't even realize how ridiculous these characters sound.
Centering the plot around other people's impressions of Van Gogh as a person essentially lets gossip take center-stage rather than Van Gogh's actual thoughts, feelings, and experiences. And, the effacing of his mental illness through the denial of his suicide as the central subject of the film comes off as ignorant as well as monumentally disrespectful. Especially considering how his struggle with depression impacted his art, using his own paintings to tell a story that completely denies him this crucial part of his identity and completely erases his agency in his own death is irresponsible, and only furthers misconceptions about those who suffer from mental illness. On the one hand, I understand how many people who do not have depression typically are in shock and denial when someone attempts suicide, but creating a feature length film centered around that denial is completely unproductive in the conversation surrounding suicide prevention, and completely erases the experience of the person who is actually in need. And still, the conclusion of the film refuses to admit the truth of Van Gogh's death! As if it is still an unresolved mystery, despite the fact that Van Gogh himself verbally admitted to shooting himself on his very deathbed!
Turning someone's very personal death by suicide into a caper is rude as well as minimizing. Not only does it alienate the man from his work by turning his death into the centerpiece of the film rather than the quality of his paintings, clearly the filmmakers don't treat Van Gogh's mental illness with the gravity it deserves. Depression drove Van Gogh to his own death: to deny this fact is to deny a fact of Van Gogh's very person. He is quoted as saying "My body is mine and I am free to do what I want with it. Do not accuse anybody, it is I that wished to commit suicide." To have the gall to make an entire movie accusing others of killing him flies in the face of what the man said himself on the matter. Dragging his corpse up from the grave in a misguided attempt at homage is morally repulsive and insulting to Van Gogh's memory. Van Gogh is portrayed as a kind, yet odd eccentric in the film, rather than someone with a complex and difficult inner life. His entire struggle is shouted over by the other characters in the film, whom in caring so much about him completely crowd out his very real pain. Once again, centering the film around his neighbors and their feelings reeks of a naive filmmaker co-opting the story of someone with mental illness rather than truly trying to depict the person of Van Gogh himself.
This attitude of entitlement slash idol-worship is an ongoing thread throughout Loving Vincent: the focus is not on Van Gogh's actual life or his work, but instead on what he represented to everyone else. While it is played up as a tribute to his greatness, realistically it is just a flight of fancy crafted by someone who clearly doesn't understand who Van Gogh was as a person or what his paintings truly meant to him. What really cheeses me is that there were more paintings made for this film than Van Gogh had actually painted in his whole life, and not one has even an ounce of the vitality of his originals. What an incredible waste of the time and talent of the 125 painters who worked on this project for ten years! Instead of creating a unique artwork with its own voice, they re-appropriated the work of a much-beloved "great" artist in a finely-crafted insult to not only his body of work but also to his very being. Each of Van Gogh's paintings tells a story, this is true: but to build a new narrative out of these pieces - whose stories have already been told! - is completely pointless. It's a shame that this movie was made with such thoughtlessness. With a different script, Loving Vincent could have really shed some light on the difficult and short life of this humble man and beloved artist.
The Last Letter
Now after that heated tirade, I thought I would take a step back and look at what the film actually does well from a structural standpoint. I'd like to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt for a moment, and instead of squawking about how I would've made the film differently, present something I found interesting in what they came up with.
Sort of like the experience of viewing a Van Gogh painting, you only see the product of his work and not the man himself, so having the subjects of his paintings be the subject of the film seems appropriate. You also get a sense of the impact that Van Gogh had on the people surrounding him, which helps contextualize his life and art to a certain degree. Much of what scholars have learned about Van Gogh is from written accounts by his neighbors and friends who knew him and exchanged letters with him, so perhaps the filmmakers were just using the source material they had available. Also, many people gaze upon his paintings and probably invent little narratives around the enigmatic portraits he produced, and this film certainly takes that concept and runs with it.
Also, a central motif of the film is Van Gogh's last letter written to his brother, signed "Loving Vincent", which Armand so dutifully attempts to deliver. Van Gogh's letters are what inspired director Dorota Kobiela to create this film, for in his letters she got a sense of the man himself. What better symbol to use considering the subject matter of the film is his death? While at first it bothered me that even after watching the film Van Gogh is still a complete mystery, on later reflection I decided that the movie really didn't have to be about Van Gogh at all, since the subject really is his body of work and our relationship with it as outsiders to his world. In that way, it really is more of a love letter to his paintings than a love letter to the man himself. While I still can't help but argue that I think the film could have better captured the art and life of Vincent Van Gogh by using his self portraits as well as his personal writings instead, I understand the choices that the creators made, and cannot deny that they took an interesting approach to interpreting a good chunk of his body of work.
Now every time I visit my sister, her husband, and their pugs in Chicago, I make a pilgrimage to the Art Institute: specifically, to gaze upon The Poet's Garden. It still charms me as much as when I first saw it. And it's still one of only a small handful of Van Gogh paintings that I've actually seen in person. I would like to impress this thought once again, that the amount of pleasure I have gleaned from just looking at this one seemingly bland painting has meant more to me than any and all of the 65,000 paintings that make up this film. I would argue that instead of investing time and money in viewing this film, pick up a copy of Marbles by Ellen Forney and bring an easel and canvas out to a grassy field. What better way to reflect on Van Gogh's work than by understanding his illness and how it may have informed his art, and taking time to enjoy the one part of life he truly loved: painting.