A film to make Vincent turn in his grave

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VAN Gogh’s portrait of Pere Tanguy (played by John Sessions) corrupted into life. Photograph courtesy maturetimes.co.uk

VINCENT VAN GOGH spent 37 tortured years on this planet. He was easily one of the most prolific artists the modern world has seen, but he’s also a key figure in visual culture because he has become emblematic of the popular cliché which reflects on a poor man with oodles of talent holed up in a freezing garret with just his absinthe and his unsellable paintings to keep him company. The story follows the chap to his early sad grave, and then sees his work exploding in value on the commercial sphere. It’s an old story, but it’s also van Gogh’s.

And in being so, has become grist for the commercial mill, which has ground out yet another cliché-ridden, disrespectful extrapolation on van Gogh’s life in the form of Loving Vincent. It clearly did have good intentions, which feel from the outset like a vanity project: but what you see on the big screen is precious and cute; it’s hard on the eye and overall wooden in its narrative.

The story focuses on the possible causes of Van Gogh’s suicide in 1890 and, armed with letter written to his brother Theo, the piece casts a faux historical narrative around a quest for the truth. On a level, it’s like a thriller. Or at least, on paper, it might have read as such. But for a full length movie to feature jagged stop-frame-animation, is a hell of a thing. It’s a migraine-inducing thing which causes you to have to rest your eyes much of the time.

And it’s a total mystery why the makers of Loving Vincent didn’t knock on the door of more seasoned animators. Animation isn’t, after all, a new medium in this world. So what you get is a bumpy, self-consciously artsy ride which makes the actors’ voices feel like voice-overs and which separates character from performance, from spoken words in a way which blatantly bruises the fluidity of the story.

But there’s more. The act of taking a painting and reducing it to a milli-second of filmed time in the name of the telling of an animated story is outrageously disrespectful. For several tiny seconds in this much-too-long film, you get a glimpse of images of the paintings themselves before they were corrupted by this animation project. And the biggest casualty in this is that the work is not about the art. It’s about hypotheses as to why one disturbed man kills himself. The art just becomes an incidental novelty. A crass little cherry on top of a big budget project.

And while we’re talking crass, let’s not forget that the title of the thing is a derivation from how Vincent signed his letters to his brother Theo: Your loving Vincent. The makers of this film could not even respect the intimacy of this complex brotherly love and felt the need to interject their commercial presence in even this.

Vincent van Gogh was the father of a certain type of visual expression. He was not an Englishman. None of the people with whom he fraternised or fought, were English. His is not an English story. And yes, perhaps this film is made for an English speaking audience, but seriously? The range of distinct English accents in this film further blurs over historical veracity or any pretense of it. Had this been in Dutch with English sub-titles, it might have held a modicum of value. Had it even been in English with Dutch and French accents, similarly so. But here, you get nothing.

And as you sit there, feeling irritated by the cloying van Gogh clichés which wash over you with a slick and supercilious resonance, you quietly think, at least they’re not touting that 1971 Don McLean song, Starry Starry Night. But stop right there: it’s there, too, in all its syrupy sentimentality, interpreted by Lianne La Havas in this iteration.

This morass of sickly and superficial Van Gogh adulation does little for an understanding of the artist, his work and his desperate illness which led to his death. And above all, it’s a chore to watch – with an entertainment factor standing way under par.

  • Loving Vincent is directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman and features a cast headed by Bozena Berlinska-Bryzek, Douglas Booth, Josh Burdett, Borys Dominiuk, Kamila Dyoubari, Holly Earl, Jerome Flynn, Przemyslaw Furdak, James Greene, Robert Gulaczyk, Keith Heppenstall, Martin Herdman, Robin Hodges, Cezary Lukaszewicz, Helen McCrory, Chris O’Dowd, Adam Pabudzinski, Piotr Pamula, Graham Pavey, Saoirse Ronan, John Sessions, Anastazja Seweryn, Marcin Sosinski, Bertlomiej Sroka, Joe Stuckey, Nina Supranionek, Bill Thomas, Eleanor Tomlinson and Aidan Turner. It is written by Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman and Jacek Dehnel. Produced by Ivan Mactaggart, it features creative input by Clint Mansell (music), Tristan Oliver and Lukasz Zal (cinematography), Dorota Kobiela and Justyna Wierszynska (editing), Jennifer Duffy (casting) and Dorota Roqueplo (costumes). Release date: February 23 2018.

 

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Robyn Sassen

A freelance arts writer since 1998, I fell in love with the theatre as a toddler, proved rubbish as a ballerina: my starring role was as Mrs Pussy in Noddy as a seven-year-old, and earned my stripes as an academic in Fine Arts and Art History, in subsequent years. I write for a range of online and print publications, including the Sunday Times, the Mail & Guardian and artslink.co.za and was formerly the arts editor of the SA Jewish Report, a weekly newspaper with which I was associated for 16 years. This blog promises you new stories every week, be they reviews, profiles, news stories or features.

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