Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian aptly calls the film “impressive but weirdly exasperating”. I did enjoy the film, but I do wish I’d sat a bit farther back from the screen. I also wish I had watched Loving Vincent on DVD (rather than in a theater) so that I could watch the special features. For one thing, I’m not so familiar with the life and works of Vincent Van Gogh. For another, I would love to know more about the technique that was used to create this strange film. The medium is the message.
Some of the frames are copies of Van Gogh paintings—over a hundred of them. The color parts of the film seemed to have been actually painted (in the style of Van Gogh); the black-and-white parts seemed to consist of live-action film that had been modified with some kind of filter. In any case, the realism of the people and their movements can be explained by rotoscoping: the movie was filmed first; then artists used the film frames as templates for paintings on canvas. What we see was made using images of those paintings. (And I thought stop-motion animation was pains-taking!)
The story of the film is sad, as is the life of many a starving artist; Van Gogh only became famous after his untimely death. The end credits said he sold exactly one painting in his lifetime, but created over 800 in the decade before he died—and he died when he was younger than I am now.
It goes to show that having a skill is not enough; you also need the skill or connections to advertise that skill in the right place at the right time, or you are no more noticed than a tree falling in the forest where no ears can hear it.
See below for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
My Beat Sheet for Loving Vincent
The title is taken from the closing of some letters written by Van Gogh: “With a handshake, Your Loving Vincent.” The plot is a mystery investigation with an ambiguous ending.
We see Starry Night, perhaps the most famous Van Gogh painting of them all.
The main character, a man in a yellow jacket (Armand Roulin, played by Douglas Booth), is a drinker and a brawler. The main character’s father, postmaster Joseph Roulin (played by Chris O’Dowd), has tasked him with delivering a letter from the late Van Gogh to his brother, Theo Van Gogh. Delivery of the letter has thus far failed, but the postmaster (unsurprisingly) believes it is important for letters to reach their recipients, especially letters from dead people. Moreover, there’s something fishy about Vincent’s suicide, since he had written just six weeks previously that he was feeling calm and normal, cured of his mental illness. Yellow Jacket reluctantly boards a train for Paris to look for Theo.
Yellow Jacket is told to start by asking the man who sold paint to Vincent (Père Tanguy, played by John Sessions), who says that Theo died, mourning his brother, staring at his paintings and wondering why he had died. There was a doctor at Vincent’s funeral, who seemed to be his friend… or maybe not. Vincent was a great artist, but troubled… What happened? Yellow Jacket starts to take an interest.
Break into Two
Yellow Jacket jumps on a train from Paris to find Vincent’s doctor.
B-Story/Fun and Games
The doctor (Paul Gachet, played by Jerome Flynn) is out. The housekeeper (Louise Chevalier, played by Helen McCrory) says Vincent was obviously evil. She offers to pass the letter to the doctor, but Yellow Jacket declines. He will wait for the doctor to return in a couple of days. The doctor’s daughter picturesquely plays the piano. Yellow Jacket goes to the café/boarding house where Vincent stayed.
After talking to the friendly bar girl (Adeline Ravoux, played by Eleanor Tomlinson), he goes to talk to the boatman (played by Aidan Turner) at the river. The bar girl and the boatman say Vincent was close to the doctor’s daughter (Marguerite Gachet, played by Saoirse Ronan). Vincent reportedly argued with the doctor before he died. Maybe they argued about the daughter? Maybe the doctor shot him or drove him to shoot himself? The daughter pooh-poohs this theory, but the bar girl says the doctor and his people are not to be believed.
Yellow Jacket confronts the daughter, who said she had some contact with Vincent, but withdrew when her father pointed out that Vincent’s work was more important. She worried that her withdrawal contributed to his final breakdown, or to the argument between Vincent and her father. She takes flowers to Vincent’s grave every day because his artist’s soul would have loved their delicate beauty. Confirming what Yellow Jacket has already heard once or twice, she says some rough young men bullied Vincent, who was odd because he was an artist.
Bad Guys Close In
Yellow Jacket tries to figure out where the gun came from, and where Vincent’s stuff went after he was shot, and where he was shot. He chases the village idiot and speaks with a man thatching a roof, who suggests that the fatal injury may not have been sustained in the fields where some say it was.
All Is Lost
The gun could have been the one that belonged to the café. The bar girl says that one was sold… to one of the rough young men, who used it as part of a costume and flaunted it around town. Yellow Jacket starts to believe that probably that guy shot him, and Vincent lied to protect him. He also learns from the bar girl that he has lost his job. She says he cannot stay or drink at her place now that he has no money.
Dark Night of the Soul
Yellow Jacket fights with the boatman, saying he should have protected Vincent from the rough young men who teased him. He also fights three local men who are bullying the village idiot.
Break into Three
Waking up sheepishly at the police station the next morning, Yellow Jacket finds out that another doctor filed a report with the local police about Vincent’s wound. He goes to speak with the other doctor, who believes that the gunshot wound was made in such a way as to suggest the gun was fired from far away at an angle, not point-blank. The doctor demonstrates his theory hilariously. Anyway, who commits suicide by shooting himself in the stomach, rather than the temple, mouth, or heart? (This is a question I had all along.)
Yellow Jacket finally meets Vincent’s doctor. He learns that the doctor feels guilty for taunting Vincent by saying that the price of his dedication to art and truth was that he was dangerously stressing his syphilitic brother Theo, who was paying for his treatment. The doctor reiterates that that unusual people do unusual things (such as shoot themselves in the stomach), that Vincent did not want anyone to be blamed for his death, and that he said his death might be better for everyone. It seems Yellow Jacket more or less accepts this explanation, and passes the letter to the doctor for Theo’s widow. The doctor gives him a letter in return, an expressive letter from Vincent to Theo copied out for the doctor by Theo’s widow. Yellow Jacket later learns that she received the letter he went to such pains to deliver.
Yellow Jacket and his father the Postmaster reflect on Vincent’s love of art while gazing at the night sky.