Review: Loving Vincent | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Review: Loving Vincent

Film Critic Luis Freijo explains just how great an achievement Loving Vincent is, a film 7 years in the making

In 1956, French filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot released Le mystère Picasso, a movie in which his camera followed Pablo Picasso while painting 36 canvases in his workshop. Clouzot's ambition was to understand the artist's mind through the movement of his hands. Film critic André Bazin called it a "bergsonian film", because, to him, its real value resided in its nature of work in progress, in adding the duration coordinates to the space coordinates in art. This film belongs to a wider trend in French cinema from the fifties that consisted on using cinema to explore the work of painters such as Picasso, Francisco de Goya or Vincent Van Gogh. These movies were named "film d´art" (don´t mistake with films d´art from early silent cinema) and recent British and Polish co-production Loving Vincent is the last and most brilliant descendant of that tradition.

In my opinion, Loving Vincent fullfils its artistic goal in a much more complete way than its predecessors

The ambition of French directors to use cinema as an open window to painting answers to one of the most primary filiations of the Seventh Art: films come from the plastic arts and, therefore, they are always looking up to them. The screen frame imitates the painting frame, and if film is a fifty/fifty combination of space and time (as Jean Mitry defined it), it derives its space rules from perspective tecniques developped by Renaissance artists (mainly, Leon Battista Alberti). Therefore, it is only logical that we can see traces of painting in every film (composition, colour, point of view) and that, from time to time, a filmmaker decides to explicitly state this relationship. What´s the difference, then, between Clouzot´s Le mystère Picasso or even Van Gogh, shot by Alain Resnais, and this Loving Vincent?

In my opinion, Loving Vincent fullfils its artistic goal in a much more complete way than its predecessors. Van Gogh, Goya or Le mystère Van Gogh only achieve, in Bazin's words, some kind of second-degree realism: their camera follows the painter's work, but canvases exist on their own. On the contrary, Loving Vincent has taken a much shorter, direct and successful way: film and painting are inextricable, because each frame of the movie is a hand-painted drawing. Both arts united, at long last.

There´s another major difference between the film by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman and the French experiments: while the latter were mainly documentary shorts, the former bets on fiction, a much humbler (hence much more effective) discourse. This is why the movie is so successful in its goals: it seems that it's not aware of its own beauty. It doesn't stop to admire itself. Kobiela and Welchman know that their attempt, bold as it is, needed good filmmaking.

The whole film has an unequivocal cinematic fluency, because paintings are conceived as means to an end
And that's what they have done: classic mise-en-scène, with each sequence started by a long-shot, a typical Van Gogh landscape, followed quickly by close-ups, shots and countershots featuring main characters. Sometimes, there are even some very elegant "camera movements", like in the dialogue between Roulin and Adeline Ravoux in the boarding house. The whole film has an unequivocal cinematic fluency, because paintings are conceived as means to an end.

The narrative structure of Loving Vincent imitates the Citizen Kane model: an investigator, in this case the son of one of Van Gogh's friend from Arlès, must search for the painter's family in order to deliver a posthumous letter. However, he ends up searching for the causes of his suicide and, eventually, for the intricate depths of his soul by speaking with witnesses of his last days. This classic plot is well developed, with the main character changing his perspective as he learns and unlearns more and more about the figure and the person.

The performances cannot be valued without the paintings, and vice versa
It evolves toward genuine emotion, specially due to Douglas Booth, Jerome Flynn and Saoirse Ronan's excellent performances, and a beautiful soundtrack. It's good to see Flynn, who plays Bronn in Game of Thrones, in such a different role, so far away from the badass mercenary, portraying a sensitive and ambiguous character. Saoirse Ronan doesn't have anything to prove by now but, still, she makes a brief but powerful appearance. And Booth carries the weight of the film with skill. He manages to make the public care, not only for the late Vincent Van Gogh, but also for his rootless character.

Did I say performances? I wouldn't know what to think, because, yes, we hear their voices, but we "only" watch their pictures. Every frame imitates Van Gogh's style, as if movie directors shared Clouzot's belief that only through experiencing the film as Vincent himself experienced life we would be able to reach his true self. And it is an impressive work: 115 artists have painted 65.000 frames to give birth to this wonderful spectacle, the first movie ever made exclusively by oil paintings. Therefore, we have to congratulate both actors and painters, because, in Loving Vincent, their works walk together and the performances cannot be valued without the paintings, and vice versa.

In the end, the film tells us with exquisite tenderness that all that matters is the search and its subsequent memory. Not answers, not explanations, not theories, only the quest is important. Loving Vincent means searching for Vincent. And, unlike terrible Charles Foster Kane, who only left behind a dark void, Van Gogh has an unique, colourful and inspiring legacy that all of us can search for. Therefore, we can all love Vincent. And this movie is a terrific way to start.

VERDICT: A delicate and emotional movie that not only portraits a caring and respectful image of one the world's most fascinating artists, but also manages to sway the spectator in its tender progression. And its frames are just a stunningly beautiful sight.

Rating: 9/10


20th October 2017 at 9:00 am

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