A big statement for a film that might be too, dare I say, Art House for some, even if it is an Independent Film. Which is now on Netflix and I can’t recommend it enough. Mind you, this review ended being more personal than I intended, but I will keep it, because it is the truth and those that read this can then watch this movie, knowing how it impacted one person and see how it will effect them in turn. You can read this review before or after watching the movie.
Vincent van Gogh is dead in 1890. A year after his death Armand Roulin is sent by his father Joseph Roulin to deliver his last letter to his brother Theo. On the way Armand starts to learn about Vincent’s life and his struggles from those then knew him. He begins to be more interested in finding how he died with the conflicted accounts told to him, trying to discover the man in the days before he died.
A labour of love, is what I would call this movie. Made with as much love for Vincent’s artwork as well as his style as for his life itself. It is both a psychological examination, a murder mystery, a testament and a love letter for the man who has been dubbed posthumously the Farther of Modern Art. Directed by Dorote Kobiela and Hugh Welchman with a partnership between UK and Poland the film is a collaborative effort in every way. One man may have done all the paintings, but it took a group of like minded people to make this movie happen, just like a group of people knew Vincent in his lifetime and who loved him and his art.
Every actor is a veteran of British stage and screen. With Douglas Booth as Armand Roulin, our protagonist and detective on the journey to Vincent’s life. With many perfectly cast actors and actresses as the people from his paintings that he knew in life. Eleanor Tomlinson as Adeline Ravoux whose account of his last weeks were recorded later on. Jerome Flynn as Paul Gachet, the doctor and friend and fellow artist who knew him better than anyone on those last weeks. Each person brings in a different story, a different side to a man and an artist that has been so mythologized that he is an enigma for those who don’t know anything but the surface level knowledge given to us in art class in school.
The film is a masterpiece. Using rotoscoped actors in front of green screens, editing it, and then years of over 100 oil painters all around the world painting each scene of the movie frame by frame. The acting comes through with the art as we see the world as Vincent saw it. Full of life and colour, a little tilted and bursting with more character and mood would if the film was done straight with on location shooting. At times you don’t know where to look, the art, the brushstrokes, the accuracy of recreating both his style and paintings or at the acting.
This is not the first time the tackle of Vincent’s depression and recovery process before his ultimate death. New Doctor Who did it in their season 5 episode 10 ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ in which the Doctor and Amy inevitably see a monster in his painting and attempt to make Vincent van Gogh’s life last longer. They travel to the future to show his art in display and ask the guide and art historian’s opinion on Vincent. As I write this I am literally crying while watching the clip in the background. It is a small gesture, but one which every artist knows. Because even if we do the work, be it painting, drawing, writing or any other creative outlet it is for ourselves, but it is also showing our inner selves to the world. Sounds pretentious, I know, but it is true. And with that work we put in to the work that deeply affect us personally, as it is such a big part of ourselves comes great insecurity of both our work and ourselves. Then the outside world will judge our most precious art, which is when we turn in to our most sensitive, critical of criticism.
Speaking as someone who is currently writing her first book of a series, one which I consider my magnum opus since I’ve worked on it since High School. I know the struggle. Writing, writing more, adjusting, deleting, writing, failing, trying again, putting yourself more or taking yourself out of the art you create depending how you feel. Wanting to show it to the world only when it feels perfect for you, and even then, if a publisher and editor want it, then there will be even more insecurities piling up for a strive of perfection that doesn’t need to be established. It is my work, it is mine, even if no one will love it I know I have done the impossible for myself and actually finished it.
There are doubts, there are bouts of depression, many moods changing, and we cling to the friends and family we have with all our might even though our darkened mind tells us that they might not care what we do outside of our meet ups. We cling to them, because from those that help us we receive the greatest gift an artist can have, a belief in ourselves and that even though, like Vincent, our art might not be appreciated now, it will be those by who love us. And to have people in the future love our work, that is fine too, but in the end it is those close to us that matter. And now I am going to watch the above clip again, because I want to feel cathartic and cry about this beautiful episode once more.
Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh, painted in 1889 from his time in the asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in Southern France. The time he asked for help from the doctors and seemed to be recovering, only to kill himself a year later. It is my favourite of his, cliché I know to choose his most famous painting only after Sunflowers in 1888, as my favourite.
Now all that will follow is my own conjecture as an artist myself on another artists work. First, what do you see the sky as? Depending where you are in the world it is either black or dark blue. Midnight sky, as it’s called. But Vincent, recovering slowly saw beyond the trappings of the world we see in front of us and looked deeper in to them, painting the universe with brushstrokes and making it live and animated. His stars burn with the celestial power of the suns they are, his mountains move with light, the crescent moon is as golden as the sun, all the while the earth below is steady while the universe turns, shaping in to form in the sky. He sees the world as something beautiful, with a rawness and sees the unseen. The wind moves through the sky in to the mountains, he painted what he felt and what he saw from his window in the asylum.
We can say a lot of things about an artist when they are no longer with us. We can condemn those that hurt us, we can put them on a pedestal or tare them down. Others will do it or those close to us. Either way what we leave is a lot of people behind, who knew a part of of us and not the whole. That is the meaning of this movie, to search for Vincent in all his forms as known by historical record and possible theories on how in the end we should see this complicated human being who is not able to tell us his story himself. He was petitioned and kicked out of a village for harassing and troubling people, he painted like a madman, he kept to himself and yet made people angry, he was bullied by children, an intriguing sensitive and respectful person around women, seemed to be recovering and then, six weeks later he died.
All of this is just a small part of a man who has been made the icon of a suffering artist, with the false notion that only pain can create good art. And that if one doesn’t suffer in life while making the art is has less value. This is a deeply seated notion that needs to stop. Depression, melancholy and effects of bullying do stay in a person, but it is the recovery that makes them see the world anew and forgive themselves if not forgive those that hurt them, depending how one has been hurt of course. I, personally have been bullied in both High School and Middle School that effected me in those years and still effects me today. For the first time in years I am feeling perfectly happy with myself mentally, but that doesn’t erase the insecurity or sensitivity that has made itself deep in to my own personality because of the bullying.
I teared up many times throughout this film. Not only for its sheer beauty, the talent and the mastery of how it was handled. But mostly, because it showed my own process in recovering, being with people, talking, failing, separating, doing mad things because I wasn’t in my right mind…all leading up to a moment where I truly felt happy with myself completely. And that is the story here too, not of the suffering artist and the genius that comes from it. But the people, the help and support Vincent had around him. He may not have survived his depression in the end, it is a long battle inside which treatment at that time couldn’t cure, but he tried, he began recovering and made his best work in the process. That is what matters. Loving Vincent, for all his flaws, his art and most of all his humanity. Because in the end that is what loving someone, dead or alive, is all about.
Thank you for reading!