This film is unique in the way that it is composed entirely of animated paintings, based upon a live action shoot. Around 65,000 frames were created- the first frame was painted as a full painting, and the subsequent frames were painted over the top. The extraordinary amount of dedication, time, effort and skill that went into producing the visuals makes the film feel refreshingly organic.
I loved the way that there are sometimes inconsistencies within the animation, such as at one point Armand Roulin’s bottom eyelashes disappearing. It gives the film a sense of raw authenticity.
The most stunning thing about the visuals is that they are all in Van Gogh’s style, often based upon works by him. We see the world through his eyes, in all of its vibrancy and energy. Therefore, even though the narrative is concerned with his death, the film itself is much more concerned with his life. It seems to suggest that his way of seeing the world transcends his suicide- and, of course, it does.
Another aspect of the film that I loved was the way that it uses different works by Van Gogh together in one scene. Towards the end, Armand Roulin travels back to Arles, passing the Haystacks, the Red Vineyard and the Sower. The images flow together to form the backdrop to his journey. This does such wonderful justice to the way that Van Gogh worked. His art was often about taking the incidental and imbuing it with a kind of divine importance, through a recognition of its beauty. Here, the Sower is just an ordinary man at work whom Armand fails to notice. But the Sower is at the same time Van Gogh’s iconic image of new life and honest labour. Another instance of this is when Adeline Ravoux pours coffee from the coffee pot in ‘Still Life: Blue Enamel Coffeepot, Earthenware and Fruit.’ Looking at the world with Van Gogh’s eyes, we can’t help but notice the beauty of the humble objects, which in any other film would go unnoticed.
As well as this, the film is a reflection of Van Gogh’s desire for his art to be viewed not as separate works, but as a unified whole. He wrote to Theo in 1883, “I don’t view my studies in isolation, but always have in mind the work as a whole.” In Arles, he wrote that his paintings are an “ensemble” which are “fated for dispersal” but is consoled by the knowledge that Theo can “see the whole of what I want”. By coherently merging and combining different works from different periods, the film allows us to understand- and immerse ourselves in- Van Gogh’s holistic approach to his art. And we are reminded of the reality of the world that he memorialised: Armand Roulin would have known the Night Cafe, and the Church at Auvers may have been attended by Dr Gachet’s wife.
One scene that I really loved is when Armand is in Paris, smoking at a viewpoint overlooking the city. At first, all we see of the view is the edge of the sky and buildings. I recognised it from the painting- ‘View of the Roofs of Paris’- straightaway. Then the ‘camera’ moved- and there was the view that Vincent painted.
Similarly, I noticed that the decanter and lemons on the counter at Ravoux’s cafe were the same painted by Van Gogh in Paris in 1887. And shown as a young boy, Van Gogh is examining a bird’s nest and eggs- which he painted several times when he was just beginning his life as an artist. There are many other instances when the attention to detail suggests a reverence and respect for the artist, which I found very touching.
It was fascinating- and very moving- to have the people who we know so well from the portraits given voices. I especially loved the scene with Pere Tanguy- he speaks and behaves in the genial, unpolished way which is insinuated in the portraits of him. Postmaster Roulin, too, is a character whom I realised that I already knew. It feels like a homage to the Rembrandt-esque power of Van Gogh’s portraits to frankly and beautifully portray the character of the sitter.
In this way, I dislike it when the film is described as ‘bringing the paintings to life’. Van Gogh’s art does not need bringing to life- I would suggest that his paintings are more full of life than any other artistic creation. John Berger puts it beautifully: “He was compelled to go ever closer [to reality], to approach and approach and approach…there are canvases where reality dissolves him.” The film should not be seen as bringing the art to life- it should be seen as a homage, or a translation into cinema, in the same way that Van Gogh himself ‘translated into colour’ the works of Millet and Rembrandt as a homage to them. The film does in no way attempt to ‘improve’ his art- it celebrates it. This sense of celebration overrides the themes of mental illness and suicide. It is the wonder of Van Gogh’s life that lingers in the mind the longest after watching this film, rather than the tragedy of his death.