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I am not a van Gogh scholar in the academic sense. But following my middle school art teacher’s advice to pick an artist to study for the rest of my life, I chose Vincent van Gogh.
This was not hard to do. Even when I was a child, his paintings drew me in. Vincent has been on my radar for over three decades now. I read books and articles about him. I watch films and documentaries. I make every effort to see his work when I visit a city that houses some. I give presentations about his life and work, and he occasionally finds his way into the sermons I preach. Someday I hope to write a book about him.
When I saw the trailer for Loving Vincent, I was skeptical. I was concerned that the film makers would sensationalize his life, glorify his suffering, and maybe try to frame his death as a murder mystery, as some have attempted.
But even more than any of those concerns, I was apprehensive about how the animation in the film would be used. Loving Vincent is the world’s first entirely hand-painted film. Over 125 artists worked for six years to recreate the south of France in Vincent’s unique style. They painted over 65,000 frames on over 1,000 unique canvases. Every frame of this 135 minute film is done in oils. (If you’re curious about how they did this, check out the film’s website. It is loaded with video clips and articles showing how the film was made.)
I went in to the film wondering if the filmmakers were operating on the notion that animating a van Gogh would somehow enhance the experience of seeing one. Van Gogh’s work has plenty of motion on it’s own. It doesn’t need animation to come to life. I feel similarly about 3D movies. Our brains process how we see the world in a multi-dimensional way. When I watch a standard 2D movie, I’m not wishing I could see the depth of each scene. I can see it. Our brains supply the information we need to perceive depth on a 2D screen. The 3D effect just adds a new layer of information the brain must now process—information which often works against what our cognitive process is already naturally filling in. When it comes to 3D movies, rather than enhancing the experience, the cheap glasses and visual information coming at me dimly through them diminishes it. Though Loving Vincent is mercifully not in 3D, I went in concerned the film would employ its animation to try to improve on the effect of seeing Vincent’s work.
I am happy to report Loving Vincent does no such thing. This is an amazing achievement in filmmaking. Here are a few things I really appreciated about this movie.
First, the film’s use of oil brush strokes creates the same texture you see when standing in front of one of Vincent’s later works. The painters who worked on Loving Vincent are clearly paying homage to Vincent. The brushwork in this film is a labor of love.
Second, this film incorporates many of Vincent’s landscapes and townscapes in ways that are clever but also educational. The town and the fields around it are drawn directly from Vincent’s work, and they are arranged to give a sense of their physical relationship to one another. The south of France comes to life.
Third, the story the film tells, which focuses on how and why Vincent died, respects the complicated truth that Vincent was volatile and relatively isolated. People love a good conspiracy theory, and there is one that suggests Vincent was murdered by a teenager with a hot temper and a gun. This film explores that theory and others. Without giving anything away, I will say that after all the stories have been worked through, the film lands in a place of simple sorrow over his death and reverence for the beauty he brought to this world.
Fourth, the characters in this story are drawn directly from his paintings. Strangely, for people familiar with van Gogh’s art, this is a film of familiar faces. But these people who populated Vincent’s paintings reveal something true and sad about his life. He did not have many friends. The people in his paintings are mostly people he came into contact with by necessity—his landlord, his barkeep, his doctor, his postman, prostitutes he knew, and other artists.
Vincent seemed to keep company with the people his routines supplied. This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. In fact, befriending those who come together to form one’s own functional community is a sign of relational health. But in Vincent’s case, every time we meet a new character—someone immortalized in his work, whose likeness hangs in some fine museum somewhere—we discover that he or she didn’t really know much about Vincent other than that he had a troubled spirit and loved to paint.
If you love Vincent, you will appreciate this film. If it comes to a theater near you, check it out. I think you will be glad you did. And if Loving Vincent does not win the Oscar for animated film, something’s up.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).