Loving Vincent (2017)

Loving Vincent is a love letter whose true recipient has been long gone: a Dutch painter, Vincent Willem Van Gogh, died of infection caused by an untreated gunshot wound, which was inflicted in uncertain circumstances in Auberge-Ravoux, a small village near Paris. Despite unanswered questions regarding what led him to an untimely death at the age of 37, the established story tells us that the ‘mad painter’ (Robert Gulaczyk), who long struggled with the crippling misery of poverty, ill-health, and isolation, pulled the trigger of a revolver and shot himself. Naturally, not everyone is content with the standard theory. The postmaster of Arles, Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd), was a close friend of the painter, and after re-reading Van Gogh’s last letter addressed to him, Roulin is simply unable to believe that the Dutchman had taken his own life. Having taken possession of the painter’s recently discovered letter to his brother, Roulin insists that his wayward son, Armand (Douglas Booth), personally deliver it to the grieving sibling. Having been persuaded by his father, Armand reluctantly travels to Paris, only to discover that the rightful recipient of the letter is no more: the painter’s brother, Theo (Cezary Lukaszewicz), died six months after his brother’s death. Undeterred, Armand travels to Auberge, the town wherein the Dutchman worked until his death, to deliver the letter in question to Dr Gachet (Jerome Flynn), who was a close friend and a psychiatric doctor of the painter. By meeting the doctor, Armand also hopes to gain insight regarding the circumstances of his father’s friend’s death.

The rest of the story evolves around Armand’s quest: he transforms himself from a reluctant messenger to a man on a mission to discover the truth about the circumstances of the painter’s demise. In Auberge, Armand encounters locals who share various home-brew-theories regarding the manner in which the painter died. For example, Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tomlinson), the inn keeper’s daughter whose entire family befriended the painter, has been harbouring suspicions on Dr Gachet based on some strange behaviour on his part, witnessed shortly prior to Van Gogh’s death. A local doctor also shares his forensic analysis to Armand. In his expert opinion, the bullet that wounded Van Gogh could not be fired by the painter himself: he must have been shot by a third party. In addition, there is an intrigue of the Dutchman’s rare ‘friendship’ with a young woman, Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan), Dr Gachet’s withdrawn daughter, who daily brings flowers to the painter’s grave. Whilst Dr Gachet has been the artist’s friend and psychiatrist, it was widely reported that he and the Dutchman had a turbulent fallout right before the fateful incident took place. Yet, despite all the investigations undertaken, as Armand delves deeper into the intrigue, the inquiry reveals more about his interlocutors than the painter himself. Then how could this quasi-detective story, though impressively painted, framed, and directed, emerge as a genuinely moving tribute to Van Gogh’s art and life? The answer to this question is expressed by the title of this cinematic gem: Loving Vincent is really a loving tribute to the life and the spirit of a person whose pursuit of ’truth’ made it impossible to function in the world despite, and because of, his unparalleled inability not to appreciate every aspect of it.

Loving Vincent, the world’s first entirely hand-painted animated feature, is a labour of love by Polish filmmaker, Dorota Kobiela, and a British filmmaker, Hugh Welchman. Originally conceived as a 7-minute short, Kobiela, a painter herself, initially envisioned to paint every frame by her own hand. Yet, as the project turned into a feature length film, the production had to adjust to the scope of the cinema. Eventually Kobiela and Welchman directed and worked with 125 classically trained painters in total. Each frame is hand-painted in a style of Van Gogh, who inspired various strands of new art such as Expressionism and Fauvism, amongst others, and is now hailed as one of the most important catalysts of modern art. To achieve what they envisioned as the world’s first hand-painted movie, Kobiela and Welchman settled with an intricate production process: actors are set against a green screen to be situated in a ‘Van Gogh canvas’, and then the painters painted over their impressions by hand, to be incorporated within a ‘picture’. By this unique method, which Welchman called ‘the slowest form of film making ever devised in 120 years’, the directors took four years just to complete the filming and painting. This kind of effort is truly rare in cinematic art. Most productions would not allow such a consuming process, both temporary and financially. The business side of film making simply kills off such an unprecedentedly bold and uncompromisingly deliberate project the moment such a brainstorm begins. Fortunately, some non-profit entities stepped up to support the completion of the project, such as the Polish Film Institute. To sustain and complete a project such as this is a great achievement in itself, yet, quite remarkably, Loving Vincent is not a mere novelty: it is a great cinematic art in its own right that makes us ponder many questions. Whilst the story pulls us into the cinema with a question over the mysterious circumstances of Van Gogh’s death, ultimately, this proves unimportant. Hence if you expect to have a clear conclusion on the mystery regarding the circumstances of his death, you will be left disappointed. Yet, if that is your reaction to this marvellous film, you are as mistaken as someone who thought Crime and Punishment was a crime fiction. 

Loving Vincent is neither a mere dazzling visual affair nor a clever reinterpretation of a biographical detail of Van Gogh’s life: it speaks to us directly about the human struggle of finding a place in this world without betraying oneself, that is, abandoning what one believes to be ‘good’, ‘true’, and ‘beautiful’. Although none of us can hope to match the dizzying height Van Gogh attained, he speaks to us candidly and sincerely in his vulnerability: whilst he passionately believed in his vocation, he suffered from crippling self-doubt and lack of validation and understanding. If he was truly a ‘mad man’ who fanatically upholds and imposes ‘his truth’ to the world and crashed with opposition, his life and art would not have moved us in the way it did. He regarded himself as: nobody, non-entity, and lowest of the low. He was never enough for his parents, his acquaintances, his ‘fellow’ artists, and above all, for himself. He was afraid that his presence was unpleasant to everybody around him. According to Dr Gachet, his last word to him was that the world would be a better place without him. To his brother, he is said to have uttered: Sadness will last forever. In a letter featured in the film, the would-be painter states: he, a nobody, a loathsome non-entity, nevertheless yearns to someday show what lies in his heart. The letter mentioned was written when he was about to pursue his vocation as a painter, hence it is a statement of intent in a literal sense. It also uncannily anticipated Van Gogh’s future: he never saw that ‘someday’ wherein he could touch people’s heart through his art. Like many great and original contributors to art as broadly construed, the Dutch painter’s work and effort was met with disdain and neglect in his lifetime: it is said that he only sold one painting in his entire life. In short, he was a ‘failure’ by the standard of society, but most critically, everything he did was abysmal in his own eyes.

We must remind ourselves, however: it is not Van Gogh’s suffering in itself that makes him closer to us. It is his genuine and inexplicable yearning to open his heart to the world that speaks to us and moves us profoundly. His pursuit was indeed inexplicable in a worldly perspective. He had no idea how good he would be, or whether he would be able to touch anyone through his art. He did not have a particular method or theory to lead and reshape the world of fine art. There was no prospect of success. He could not find his place amongst fellow artists: everyone dwelled in Paris, and he could not stay there. He was neither a child prodigy who demonstrated a sign of exceptional talent, nor someone who set a goal to achieve greatness in one area of life or another. A late starter with no formal training in art, Van Gogh was nonetheless able to transform our perception of art: his ‘style’ was not dictated by formal concerns. For Van Gogh, his canvas was the open window to his soul. There was, literally, nothing to hide. There was no room for pretence and self-importance. It was this singular act of what Levinas might call generosity, coupled with what I consider humility, that separate his art and life from all the rest. Yet, paradoxically, this exceptional soul remains a mystery to us despite his openness. There are so many questions that remain unanswered: Why did Van Gogh choose art?; What did he see in his vocation?; and finally: Why do we practice and value art in the first place? These are the questions for which the painter probably had no answer himself. Whilst Loving Vincent does not pretend to ‘solve’ any of the mysteries surrounding Van Gogh, we must pay tribute to the directors who have made us see what is important, that is, the fact that his life and work matter because of his exceptional openness and sincerity to follow his chosen path against all odds despite crippling despair and insecurity he had to suffer. In this, Kobiela and Welchman achieved a rare feat of directing a cinematic ode that does justice to the legacy of this exceptional person: this cinema helps us understand why his art still matters, and why it is important that it matters. Hence Loving Vincent in turn proved itself an exceptional work of art in its own merit.

Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria is a complex meditation on subjects such as: life, death, ageing, and relationships between close associates (both of the opposite and the same gender). It probes how participation in art affects a participant’s life, how life shapes art, how the contemporary celebrity culture affects celebrities, and, ultimately, how one might face these challenges in life.

Indeed, it is a lot to tackle in a film which lasts just over two hours, and sadly this is by no means a flawless film. The reason I state this with much regret is that there are moments in which Clouds of Sils Maria achieves majestic heights with intensity, nuance, and a deep understanding of the human struggles with the subjects described above. Interestingly, the flaws of the movie are not due to the fact that it is tackling too many complex subjects all at once. There are undoubtedly signs of greatness. The problem is this: It is a great story told by the wrong director. Thus, despite that the final cut represents a missed opportunity, it still is not one to be passed over.

It is a story of Maria (Juliette Binoche), an accomplished actor who is internationally recognised as one of the finest actors of her generation. On her way to Zürich to receive an award on behalf of a celebrated play-write and director, Wilhelm, she receives news of his sudden death through her devoted personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart). For Maria, Wilhelm is a central figure in her life; he cast then 18-year-old Maria for the main role, Sigrid, for his play Maloja Snake, and later cast her again for the movie production of the play for the same role. Shaken, yet too late to turn back, Maria joins the award-giving ceremony to honour her memory of Wilhelm. During the obligatory post-ceremony dinner, Maria is visited by a film director, Klaus (Lars Eidinger). Klaus confides to Maria of his plan to produce Maloja Snake, and offers the role of Helena, an older counterpart of Sigrid. Initially Maria is apprehensive of the proposal, for she has been identifying herself with Sigrid since she first played the role, and she finds Helena uninteresting. Yet, Klaus’ interpretation of the two roles interests her, and he eventually secures her service. Maria prepares herself for the role of Helena in Wilhelm’s house upon a mountain which is offered by Wilhelm's widow (memorably performed by Angela Winkler from The Tin Drum). While using Valentine as her counterpart, Sigrid, Maria continues to struggle with her new role, that of an established woman who destroys herself by means of her obsession for a younger woman. In the process, her relationship with Valentine starts to transform.

Juliette Binoche delivers an inspired performance as Maria. While this is what we all expect from a quality actor like Binoche, this time, she demonstrated such skill that she simply left me in awe. Binoche is probably one of the best actors of all time when it comes to playing a person grieving, as she ably demonstrated in Kieślowski’s Blue. However, as the story moves forward, she delivers a whole lot more: joy, anger, fear, irritation, disdain, defiance, hesitation…the sheer range of emotions she embodies from one moment to another as Maria is simply astounding. I am convinced that the majestic heights this film achieves at times owes to the presence and performance of Binoche, and the forbidding beauty of the Alps where the majority of the story unfolds. Throughout the film, they have no equal in sight.

The reason I give such credit to Binoche is that she is the only person in this movie carrying the story that needs to be told. There are many points where Assayas fails not to spoil what is already great. If he could have let the story unfold itself, with a recast and some tweaks in the plot, it could have been a far greater feature. There are quite a few sequences which simply do not belong in this movie. For example, there is a scene in which Valentine drives through the foggy and twisty Alpine roads at night, and the way the sequence is directed and edited is absurd. The same goes for some of the sequences that focused on the Internet and Hollywood, the toxic mixture that breeds the much decried tabloid culture. Not withstanding his disdain of celebrity culture, however, Assayas demonstrates an unhealthy obsession to this subject and invests too much screen time on it. In addition, the way he handles the scenes featuring Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz) makes me think that Assayas is trying too hard to bring in his trademark kitsch, which is best represented with his earlier feature, Irma Vep. The problem is: these are two completely different movies. Thus, it is clear that Assayas fails to grasp the spirit of this story. Fortunately, there are enough moments where the majestic force comes forth despite all too frequent, unwelcome, and absolutely unnecessary interventions by Assayas.

As represented by the awe-inspiring performance of Binoche, the potential for this film to become a masterpiece is there. Then one should ask oneself: How can it be fixed? In order to answer this question, we need to first see this movie as a Bergman film pictured in contemporary Switzerland, instead of Sweden. This story is about a human drama which must be expressed with utmost intensity and care. A stern and enclosed environment in the Alps, the silent presence of the deceased play-write and his obsession for the clouds called Maloja Snake, and the troubling present haunted by the troubled past…. How could Assayas have missed all the cues? There is no time to indulge ourselves with inessential subjects that rage external to this confinement, such as the Internet and tabloid culture. This story is all about characters, and their human experience through the company of each other in a forbiddingly isolating topography. Once all the noise is cut, then finally, there is space and time for the story to come forth.

Unfortunately, there is no more Bergman. Indulge me, if you will: the choice of the three main characters is easy enough. Obviously, Binoche is here to stay as Maria. Then who can match her intensity and understanding in contemporary cinema from the younger generation? My proposal is to replace Stewart with Carey Mulligan as Valentine, and I would pick Saoirse Ronan as the ‘new Sigrid’ (Of course, I will rename this character: 'Jo-Ann' is absolutely atrocious.) I’d present her character as someone who is unknown in the film world, yet, true to the spirit of the character Sigrid—strong, intelligent, private yet unafraid, without all that tabloid non-sense. After Zürich, I would simply lock up Binoche and Mulligan in the Alps, later to be joined by Ronan. Through silence, dialogue, gaze, and gestures, they will reveal the full potential of this story in all its majesty. It is a tantalising prospect.

Now, you might ask yourself: Why should I spend time watching this film, which is supposedly nothing but a missed opportunity? Well, to realise what it is, first you have to sit and experience this film. And, like the mystical Maloja Snake, a glimpse of its majestic beauty alone is worth all the trouble in the world. Even if you choose not to explore the possibility of greatness in this film, there is still Binoche, and her acting alone makes it a must-watch.