A few hours after walking out of the cinema, I was still reeling from shock, from seeing the ambitious hand-painted live-action animated feature film – Loving Vincent. Vincent, as in Vincent van Gogh.
The title may not sound so promising, but the film, as a biopic, was a solid triumph. One that offers a satisfying explanation to the morbid attraction to art that possessed the Dutch artist throughout his short but influential life. Viewers would have realised, by the time they finish, that the word “loving” in the title is one of the many things, among the dialogue and the detective way of storytelling that the film adopts, that highlights the painter’s passion for the people around him, his art and nature and its relation to his childly vigour and creative fervour. While some would have criticised the narrative as too fragmented and jumpy, I find it offering a clear glimpse to how loving Vincent Van Gogh was as a man in the form of anecdotes. A man who would but one who would not hesitate to clasp a child in his embrace and teach her paint a chicken; one who had tried to suppress his pursuit of art and live up to his father’s expectations for him to become a priest; and one who would delight the visit of a thieving crow that covets his food while painting.
In truth Vincent Van Gogh was no less a letter-writer than a painter. The hypergraphic artist wrote prolifically to his beloved brother Theo. Producers Kobiela and Welchman were wise enough to know that a look into Van Gogh’s life would not be complete without a read of his letters. Curiosity-teasing excerpts from Van Gogh’s letters have been inserted at the end of the film. While I would not go into which quotation it is that they have picked, let’s just say the film serves as a visual statement that Van Gogh’s stands firmly by – in his words, “It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done.”
If his exceptional capacity to love that makes him an exceptional genius, it is the one and same thing that tortures the man to madness and death. Through the final narrative of Dr. Gachet, Vincent’s healer and friend, the film has made it clear that it may well be the impoverished artist’s reluctance to further add to the financial burden of his brother Theo that spurred his suicidal attempt.
And of course, the word “loving” in the title, apart from being referential to the artist’s nature, could also allude to the painstaking efforts put into Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s collaboration, which has taken more than 100 top-notch artists 7 years of work to complete.
Some questions the film has raised: Could genius co-exist with sanity? Can the human frame of mind contain the overpowering passion that invariably comes together with exceptional talent without getting deformed? No matter how much we’re told that talent is diverse and intelligence multifaceted in nature, the answer to this question from Loving Vincent, perhaps, is a definitive no. The film does not only evoke the age-old theme of madness-intertwined-with-genius, it has genuinely seemed to offer no other options than obsession for an artist as devoted and talented as Van Gogh.
Others might have seen him as a prolific and hardworking painter, but the truth was he didn’t have much of a choice. Like geniuses thrust into greatness before him, I imagine, it must have felt as if some godly power compelled him to work. In this sense, genius is not so much different from a malady. It is, really, no less a curse than a blessing.
I find it hard to understand why so many other commentators could have been so unfeeling as to dismiss the film as a “dazzling eye candy”. And unlike many of them, I have not found the distinctively Van Goghian, impulsive and bright-coloured animated brushes so visually pleasing as they are nauseating and maddening. As some commentators have noted, the form is the content here. I felt lucky to have seen the picture in a theatre, as only the big screen could have magnified the so uniquely neurotic style of the mad artist, which at times reminds me of the modern Japanese polka-dot artist Yayoi Kusama.
Was being an outcast would have been a price that Van Gogh felt ready to pay for being a genius? Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he did not have a choice not to be so gifted. If we could have had his genius, would death be a price we are willing to pay? Would us rather rot in mediocrity than die a lowly death like that of a genius like him? These are some questions I cannot help pondering in horror, in incredulity, after the credits roll. This feeling was not unlike that I had after watching Amadeus (1984).
How lucky it is that a film like this was produced and fills us with awe and admiration as well as pity and horror all at the same time, at both the artist’s gift and our relative mediocrity? We’re watching something much bigger than just a mesmerising visual experiment here. We’re being asked, or rather, thrown at, with some heavyweight philosophical questions that evoke some good self-probe and deliberation, and novelty, in the form of framed canvases.