Loving Vincent van Gogh, film review

This music video is the song by Don McLean – Vincent (Starry, Starry Night) with lyrics; about famous painter Vincent van Gogh.

On 4 November 2017, I went to see the new film Loving Vincent.

Before the film started, the cinema showed the Don McLean song, with images of Van Gogh’s paintings, like in the video. The song’s lyrics have the conventional view on the artist’s death: he committed suicide. Inevitably, according to the song: ‘This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.’ But how inevitable was that? Both in the late 19th century world of Van Gogh, and in our 21st century world, there are wars, inequality and oppression. Worlds not meant for many people more beautiful than that. Enough to drive many millions of people more into suicide, the logic in the final lines in the McLean song might think. Yet these people do not all kill themselves. Many of them, instead, try to make the world better.

Did Van Gogh shoot himself? Or did someone else shoot him? The film Loving Vincent is not as sure about the answer as Don McLean and many others.

In 2011, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith published their biography, Van Gogh: The Life. According to them, the painter’s death was not suicide. A group of teenage boys, including René Secretan, had irresponsibly played with a gun, causing Vincent’s injury in the belly of which he died two days later. Then, Naifeh said, Van Gogh basically ‘covered up his own murder’. He did not want the boys to suffer harsh punishment for what they had done to him, and claimed he himself had fired the gun.

As the film says, René Secretan in 1956 admitted he and his companions had bullied Van Gogh; and that the bullet causing Vincent’s deathly injury was from Secretan’s gun. However, he claimed to not himself have fired the gun.

Van Gogh was an altruistic person; and his altruism went very far according to this non-suicide hypothesis. Interestingly, if Naifeh and Smith are right, then there might be a connection with another famous episode of violence in Van Gogh’s life: his ear was cut off. Who did that? Van Gogh himself, the conventional story says (with as argument that his later supposed suicide proves that he was mentally unstable). No, his colleague Paul Gauguin, with whom Vincent quarreled, did it, write German art historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans. And the altruist Van Gogh did not want to cause trouble for Gauguin whom he admired by reporting him to the police. Loving Vincent in this agrees with the conventional view.

The film was made in a special way. Animated films based on drawings started in the early twentieth century. Films based on computer animation exist since the 1960s. Loving Vincent is the first film based on animated oil paintings; made by over a hundred artists in Van Gogh’s style.

The theme of the film is the quest of young Armand Roulin (a historical person, depicted by Van Gogh, like the other characters in the film), trying to find out how and why Van Gogh died.

Film reviewer Joanne Laurier, while praising much in the film, nevertheless writes critically:

In the course of the movie, [Doctor] Gachet’s daughter Marguerite asks Armand [Roulin] at one point: “You want to know so much about his death–but what do you know about his life?” This, unfortunately, is a question that can be posed to Loving Vincent as a project.

Ms Laurier notes Van Gogh’s criticisms of capitalist society; his sympathies for striking workers and socialist artists. They are absent in the film, she says.

The characters in the film, while telling Armand Roulin how they remember Van Gogh, contradict each other till the end. Armand Roulin at one point thinks that there was no suicide, but manslaughter by René Secretan. But then, Doctor Gachet says why he thinks it was indeed suicide. At the end of the film, there is no definite conclusion.

I have another, relatively minor, criticism of the film. Adeline Ravoux, the daughter of an owner of an inn where Van Gogh stayed, was only 14 years old at the time when the film is set, one year after the artist’s death. Yet, the Adeline role in the film gives the impression of a young woman closer to adulthood than a fourteen-year-old. Maybe artistic licence of the filmmakers?

The birds’ sounds in the film are well chosen. When Armand Roulin starts his inquiries in Paris city, we hear swift sounds. In a village, house sparrows. And, as soundtrack to fields, a skylark singing. Or the sound of carrion crows; often depicted by Van Gogh and, animated in the film.

If I read in the very last part of the film that René Secretan, maybe Van Gogh’s killer, died as a rich banker in 1957; and that Van Gogh only ever sold one painting (while after his death, some people who had never contributed one drop of paint made billions of dollars out of his art); then I might feel so angry and depressed that I might contemplate suicide. Still, I decide that it is preferable to try to make the world better. Like Van Gogh tried.

15 thoughts on “Loving Vincent van Gogh, film review

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