Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)
Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Retouching life

Hani Mustafa is impressed by the visual side of a very costly experiment

Café Terrace at Night as seen in Loving Vincent

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) is among the best known figures in the history of modern art, a Post-Impressionist pioneer and a tragic icon. In the last quarter of the 19th century, oil painting and sculpture techniques saw remarkably speedy development, one aspect of which was the emergence of the Impressionist school developed by Claude Monet and others. Depending on landscape painting from life — outside the studio — this school reflected the way the human eyes perceived and were enchanted by nature. Van Gogh, however, was among those who felt that painting from nature is not in itself enough of an aesthetic accomplishment. He strove to surpass the nascent invention of photography, which amounted to a super-exact Impressionism combined with perspective. Van Gogh wanted to use Impressionist techniques rather to convey a feeling or idea, which may be why the value of his work was appreciated so dramatically after his death. 

Van Gogh’s suffering in his lifetime inspired filmmakers. Vincente Minnelli and George Cukor’s 1956 Lust for Life, which won Kirk Douglas in the role of Van Gogh a Golden Globe and Anthony Quinn in that of Gaugin an Oscar as best supporting actor. A film like this paid no particular attention to Van Gogh’s many fantastic paintings, since it was the tragedy of his short life and the mental illness — posthumously diagnosed as bipolar disorder — that probably ended his life in July 1890 that they focused on.

Doctor Gachet by Van Gogh

This year the filmmaking duo Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman present an entirely new kind of Van Gogh inspired film, Loving Vincent, which screened in festivals across the world including the first El Gouna Film Festival at the end of September. It seemed astounding to viewers since it is the first ever oil-painted full-length animation. Over seven years of non-stop work by over 100 painters, Kobeila and Welchman, who also wrote Loving Vincent, managed to complete the 65,000 frames the work required. Driven by the idea of animating Van Gogh’s famous paintings, the film nonetheless could not be completed without live actors wearing the clothes that appear in the paintings and filmed against a green background so that they could be retouched and woven into the right backgrounds and settings. The frames, art works in themselves, generate a high aesthetic value. But the portrait-oriented paintings present the filmmakers with a unique directorial challenge which they overcame either by adding to the image (as in the physician’s daughter Marguerite Gachet playing the piano) or by tilting down as in the scene inspired by Café Terrace at Night

Flynn as Doctor Gachet

The screenplay revolves around a group of characters the artist encountered and painted, including secondary characters like the patrol soldier or the river fisherman. But there is also an attempt to deal dramatically with Van Gogh’s final days and the reasons behind his suicide. The main storyline begins in 1891, a year after Vincent Van Gogh kills himself. The postman Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd), a friend of the artist’s, assigns his son Armand (Douglas Booth) the task of personally delivering a letter from Vincent to his brother Theo that had kept being returned from Paris. Armand Roland finds out from Pere Tanguy (John Sessions), the owner of the gallery Van Gogh sold his paintings to, that Theo — an art dealer — was so devastated by news of his brother’s death he passed away a few months later. 

Saoirse Ronan stars as Marguerite Gachet

The script, which like all Van Gogh research relies heavily on the artist’s letters to his brother, dwells on this too: that the two brothers were extremely close; Theo believed in Vincent and funded his work, encouraging him to show it in Paris alongside the work of such famous artists as Cezanne and Toulouse-Lautrec and helping to sell it. The letters tell us where Vincent was at various points and what he was doing, and so one pivotal point at the start is one such letter. The script then turns into a kind of detective thriller as Roland decides to retrace Van Gogh’s steps to where he lived on a mission to find out why he killed himself. The first stop is Auvers-sur-Oise, where Van Gogh spent the last weeks of his life in May and June 1890. Like a detective thriller, the film progresses through scenes revealing clues that combine to give a fuller picture of what’s happening; and the form the revelations take is that of a conversation between Roland and someone who knew Van Gogh.

Douglas Booth as Armand Roulinin and his portrait by Van Gogh (r)

The film is interspersed by flashbacks as the speaker recalls scenes from Van Gogh’s life. These, the filmmakers present not in Van Gogh’s mature style but in a more classic mould reminiscent of his early work and in black and white. Here as elsewhere the skill in animating not only the main characters but also all kinds of details to do with Van Gogh’s style of oil painting. His use of rough points and distinct brushstrokes that combine to form an image or a sense of perspective dominates the film’s imagery. You might identify the Van Gogh touch in the haloes surrounding outdoor lanterns and indoor candles, which appear in the form of points and lines that surround the light in constant motion; or you might see it in how the rain is depicted as discontinuous grey lines.

No doubt the filmmaking team excelled at embodying the world according to Vincent Van Gogh, but equally interesting is the choice of actors to play the people the artist knew in the course of his short life, since there is often a strong resemblance between the actors and those characters: Jerome Flynn as Dr Gachet or Helen McCrory as Dr Gachet’s housekeeper Louise Chevalier. And, notwithstanding the coherence or power of the film as drama or cinema, the result is a truly sublime visual experience of Van Gogh’s world in all its rich human and natural details.

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