This film is a triumph in so many ways. On one level it’s an engrossing account of the last days of Vincent Van Gogh, but it’s also a dazzlingly original exercise in the art of cinematography in that the story is told in hand-painted animation as if Van Gogh himself had painted the images.
The story is based on real events and real people. A year after the artist’s death, the postman who handled all his correspondence comes into possession of a letter Vincent had written to his brother Theo only a couple of days before he died. The letter doesn’t seem to show that its author was in any way suicidal. The postman, who was fond of Van Gogh and wants to find out what really happened, sends his son to deliver the letter in person to Theo, unaware that Theo himself has recently died.
The son – a dandy-ish young man who’d probably be labelled a hipster today – is unenthusiastic at first, carrying out his father’s mission out of filial duty. But the more he talks to people who knew Vincent – his doctor, the doctor’s wife, the doctor’s daughter on whom Vincent supposedly had a crush, the barmaid at the local inn – the more he becomes intrigued and tries to get to the truth himself.
The characterisations of these real people are based on Van Gogh’s portraits of them. This is a nice touch as we see the portraits at the end and can marvel at the artistry with which the actors have been transformed into them. Saoirse Ronan, for instance, plays the doctor’s daughter. Van Gogh painted a lovely portrait of her in a pink dress playing the piano, and the animators have taken their cue from that portrayal. Other characters have been based on contemporary photographs.
The story is told partly in flashback, as the son elicits reminiscences and anecdotes from the people he interrogates. The flashbacks are in black and white and in contrast to the heavily paint-filled texture of the ‘present’ they look almost naturalistic, like film given a few brushstrokes of grey paint. It’s all utterly enchanting.
The significance of the title – ‘Loving Vincent’ – is nuanced, a touching reference to the sign-off with which Van Gogh typically ended his letters to his brother.
At first I thought that we could have done without that corny Don McLean song that plays over the end credits, but then I figured what the heck, a song like ‘Starry Starry Night’ doesn’t become popular and get flogged to death for no good reason, and if there’s still a time and place for it, this wonderful movie is it.
This review was first published on Facebook in November 2017