JACOB JOHN SHALE on . . . The Arts

Each month Amsterdam-based writer Jacob John Shale reports on aspects of the arts which originate in, or are connected to, The Netherlands. This month, an essay on the 2017 speculative and highly original biopic about Van Gogh called Loving Vincent. Billed as the world’s first fully painted film it brings to life and expands on Van Gogh’s paintings and characters.

May 2023

The customary method for shooting oneself is to place the gun in the mouth. With the heart there is greater chance of complication; of an agonising and (to the death-wisher) shameful survival. For a long time, it had been my assumption that this was what happened when Van Gogh committed suicide: he aimed for the heart and struck the stomach. The 2017 film Loving Vincent floats an alternative explanation. Perhaps Van Gogh did not kill himself. Perhaps he was murdered. 

Dramatic resurrection of historical figures is a tricky business. On the one hand there is the allure of mythologisation, and on the other, of careful but bloodless fidelity to record. (Which isn’t an imputation that such works are all without merit. Some of the finest examples in the genre are those that embrace caricature. I am thinking of the pompous, pugilistic Hemingway who carouses through Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris; also of Anthony Burgess’ late novel Earthly Powers, in which the retired author Kenneth Toomey remembers most of the literary celebrities he has met from the twentieth century as being identical to the golem of their image in popular culture.) There is much to admire in Loving Vincent, but it is a film which to some extent betrays both of the impulses indicated above. Building upon a controversial 2011 biography, directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman revisit the final weeks of Van Gogh’s life in Auvers-sur-Oise to speculate that the fatal shot might have been fired by another resident of the town. These final weeks are shown as fragmentary, black-and-white flashbacks and are embedded within a larger narrative set one year later, which tracks Armand Roulin, son of Joseph Roulin, as he traipses around Auvers trying to disinter the details of the supposed suicide. 

 ‘The film you are about to see,’ we read before the opening credits, ‘was hand painted by over 100 artists.’ This is what reviewers tended to concentrate upon when writing about Loving Vincent: the unique style of its composition. And they were correct to do so, for it is certainly a peerless achievement. The stelliferous skies and verdant, roiling landscapes of Van Gogh’s paintings are imitated with an accuracy so absolute that it is sometimes distracting. I was reminded of the first chapter from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Laughter in the Dark,  where the protagonist envisions a technique for ‘having some well-known picture, preferably of the Dutch School, perfectly reproduced on the screen in vivid colours and then brought to life.’ Van Gogh’s paintings are brought to life, but the characters in the film feel far from sentient. A charismatic lead performance by Armand Roulin does little to prevent you from noticing how mawkish and maladroit and stuffed with exposition the dialogue is. The narrative is framed so that the viewer is not allowed direct access to Van Gogh and must instead settle for a chorus of secondhand accounts by people who knew him (the flashbacks I mentioned earlier), describing how talented and tortured he was as a man. 

A flawed film, Saving Vincent can be recommended solely for the painstaking splendour of its visuals. How refreshing it is to see a biopic about an artist in which the work itself is afforded such attention.