Loving Vincent is a wonderful visual experience that’s worth every penny of its arthouse theater admission cost. It also contains a thought-provoking and nuanced probe into van Gogh’s life, even if executed imperfectly.
First things first: Loving Vincent is not quite like any other film you’ll watch. That’s not a matter of hyperbole. It’s an animated film that’s animated not with drawings or computers, but with paintings. This has not (at least to the best of my knowledge) been done before. In so doing, the filmmakers have accomplished a remarkable feat, and one that merges the experience of art and film in a way that fits its subject material marvelously.
But what of the story? Well, rather than being a biographical drama, the film takes a more mystery-centric route. Armand Roulin, who was once the subject of one of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings, is the son of van Gogh’s postmaster, who was also his good friend. He is tasked with delivering Vincent’s final letter, and so comes to the painter’s last place of residence, and starts investigating the curious circumstances of his death. Ironically, the thing that most gets in my way of loving the film as much as I wanted to is a repetitive form of storytelling. In the process of the investigation, our amateur detective learns some important lessons about humanity through the struggles of van Gogh, but the narrative is almost always pushed forward by the same style of black-and-white flashbacks. By the time we near the end of the second act, it’s very easy to start saying “here we go again” every time that transition happens.
But there’s a great deal of soul to the film, despite this issue. Perhaps the most thought-provoking moment of the film comes when Armand, our detective, is asked “You are very interested in Vincent’s death. But what do you know of his life?” This probing question, combined with the fascinating multiple perspectives of those around Vincent, creates a nuanced portrait of a complicated and troubled man. No significant character is one-dimensional here, least of all van Gogh himself. It’s especially curious that the film doesn’t shy away from the conflicting descriptions of Vincent – some describe him as clearly mad, with a wild look in his eyes, while others call him calm, pleasant, and humble. In simple terms, Vincent van Gogh cannot be written off as a stereotype in any sense. The man’s story does not leave us that option. And yet, even as those around Vincent wrote him off, how often do we do the same exact thing?
The reason I was able to see this film despite living in a small Midwestern town is that I’ve been staying in Seattle this week. You see a lot of different kinds of people in a city like Seattle. One of the things I was thinking about as I was walking back to my hotel was how difficult it is to resist stereotyping. This is true across racial and socioeconomic lines, but also lines of work and station in life. In van Gogh’s case, he had a history of mental treatment, so clearly he is a madman. Or, he’s a painter, so clearly he’s a little crazy. That was, in some cases, the basis of his being bullied, mistreated, or disparaged, something that led to a great sadness that permeated his life. And unfortunately, like the life of Vincent van Gogh, we frequently do not care about the “nobodies” among us until tragedy strikes.
The film does not execute this exploration of Vincent’s life perfectly. It certainly could have been done in more interesting ways, from a storytelling perspective. But in going about that exploration in nuanced and thought-provoking ways, the film does quite well. These are questions that ought to bring about in the Christians thoughts of the person who doesn’t fit in, who feels like an outcast, who might well be lonely and overlooked. Even when that person has some sin in their life that might make us uncomfortable.
“You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.ou shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” – Leviticus 19:34