Culture

A dead artist, an unlikely detective

A still from Kobiela and Welchman's private dick-inflected artists bio-pic, 'Loving Vincent.' Photo courtesy of BIFF

BEIRUT: By the time you get about 30 minutes into Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s “Loving Vincent,” you may notice a creeping sense of deja vu.

It’s not that the film is a crypto remake. The story and formal delivery of “Loving Vincent,” which touts itself as “the world’s first fully oil-painted feature film,” are indeed fresh.

For humans of a certain vintage and cultural imprint, however, the dollops of sentimentality fueling the story are precisely those of Don “American Pie” McLean, who penned and crooned the 1971 ballad “Vincent (Starry Starry Night).” (Millennial readers can YouTube both tunes.)

Co-directed by Kobiela and Welchman (from a script by Welchman, Kobiela and Jacek Dehnel) and rendered by “a team of 125 painters,” “Loving Vincent” is a biopic-cum-police procedural about pioneering artist Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890).

Grade-school versions of the artist’s life tell us that, after demonstrating himself prone to depression and self-abuse (he once removed one of his ears and presented it to a young woman), Van Gogh ultimately took his own life. The conceit of Kobiela et al. is to throw the suicide premise into question.

As the story opens, town postmaster Joseph Roulin orders his son Armand to deliver the artist’s final letter to his brother, Theo – only the most-recent in a constant stream of correspondence between the brothers that the postmaster facilitated.

Armand, who once sat for Van Gogh, only reluctantly accepts the errand. He goes on the road and the film follows his (dramatized) efforts to find a home for the artist’s last written words. In the process he hears more stories about the artist from those who knew him.

In Paris, Van Gogh’s paint supplier informs him that Vincent and Theo were “two hearts with one mind,” and that Theo expired six months after his brother was buried.

Before discovering painting, Vincent apparently couldn’t hold down a job and the merchant speculates the artist felt he never lived up to parents’ expectations.

In Auvers, where the artist died, the housekeeper of Van Gogh’s pal Dr. Gachet opines that the artist was evil. The daughter of the innkeeper who housed the artist, however, has only fond memories of the man.

Armand’s interviews give the writers an opportunity to muster more and more exposition from the artist’s biography and it’s through them that he transforms from reluctant letter carrier to gumshoe.

True to true-crime convention, Armand finds reason to suspect that Van Gogh may have been murdered.

Gachet declared the artist’s death was suicide, but another town physician, Mazery, swears that, based on the bullet’s point of entry, there’s no way he could have killed himself.

When Armand begins to suspect foul play in Van Gogh’s death, he wonders about the nature of the artist’s feelings for Marguerite, Gachet’s daughter, who suspiciously narrates her relationship with the artist in very different terms than other observers.

“Loving Vincent” may not fill quite the niche that the filmmakers would have liked.

It’s hard not to appreciate the imagination (and toil) that must have gone into creating a feature-length narrative based on the Van Gogh’s oeuvre.

The notion of shoehorning a 19th-century biopic into the genre conventions of a 20th-century detective story isn’t a bad one either.

While it does make for certain (inadvertently amusing) incongruities – with detective Armand uttering lines like, “It just doesn’t add up!” – the writers’ genre conceit ably serves to tell Van Gogh’s story to an audience that may not know much about his life or his work.

It’s not hard to imagine “Loving Vincent” enjoying a long career in after-school television programming, or in the curricula of middle or high schools, even freshman college students.

If “Loving Vincent” is better pedagogy than cinema it’s simply because the delivery falls short of the concept. Too frequently the expositional dialogues that reveal varying versions of Van Gogh’s story come off as too contrived to be dramatically believable.

The characters’ sympathetic recollections of the artist tend to ooze with sentimentality that weighs down the narrative considerably.

This leaden quality is redoubled by Clint Mansell’s score – a series of highly illustrative compositions characterized by swooning strings and soaring mass choral arrangements.

It’s this one-two punch of voice and strings that closes the film.

The credits, however, are accompanied by a cover of Don McLeans’ second-best-loved tune, “Vincent.”

“Loving Vincent” will be projected at Metropolis-Sofil on Oct. 12 at 7:30 p.m., bringing down the curtain on BIFF.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 12, 2017, on page 16.

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