November 18th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Full audit can end dual-citizenship fiasco

CANBERRA OBSERVED High Court high handed to 'foreigners' in Parliament

MANUFACTURING Auto industry loss result of government policy failure

AGENDA FOR AUSTRALIA Financing infrastructure for development and jobs

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Behind the indictments of ex-Trump campaigners

AUSTRALIAN HISTORY Beersheba charge enabled a pivotal victory

ECONOMICS China intends to party like it's 1949 ... again

ENVIRONMENT Core of climate science is in the real-world data

U.S. HISTORY Why Americans stick to their guns

MUSIC New styles: Dipping into the melting pot

CINEMA Loving Vincent: A mystery in oils

BOOK REVIEW Just what is the conservative idea?


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Loving Vincent: A mystery in oils

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, November 18, 2017

At turns noirish and lyrical, Loving Vincent, is a truly extraordinary picture. It is a hand-painted-in-oils detective story that examines the turbulent life and mysterious death of Vincent van Gogh from within the vista of his own work. The viewer is immersed in an experience that is perhaps akin to that of the great artist himself.

It has been a year since Vincent van Gogh (Robert Gulaczyk) died, in the Parisian commune of Auvers-sur-Oise, allegedly by suicide. At least, that is what Vincent himself said. The postmaster, Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd), a sensitive soul and good friend to Vincent, has trouble believing it. He saw the way Vincent, a sick man to be sure, but a good one, was bullied and mistreated by the townsfolk – but at the same time, he had heard that Vincent’s health had greatly improved and even had a letter from the artist attesting to this. More­over, he has one last letter from Vincent to his brother Theo (Cezary Lukaszewicz), a letter that has been returned undelivered. So the older Roulin has his son Armand (Douglas Booth) deliver the letter, a final duty to the dead man who was his friend.

Armand is a boozer and a fighter, a dandified young man with a temper, who does not appreciate the significance of his mission at first. He wants the job over and done with, so he can get on with his life. He first goes to Paris, to Père Tanguy (John Sessions), the merchant who supplied Vincent with his painting supplies, hoping to get a lead as to Theo’s whereabouts. He learns that Theo too has died, only six months after the death of his brother, almost as if from a broken heart. Tanguy recommends to Armand that he seek out Vincent’s doctor and friend, Paul Gachet (Jerome Flynn), to get a forwarding address for Theo’s widow.

This leads Armand to Auvers-sur-Oise, where Dr Gachet’s housekeeper Louise Chevalier (Helen McCrory) expresses her displeasure at Armand raking up the past, but promises to let him know when the doctor returns. Armand goes to stay at the Auberge Ravoux, Vincent’s own hostel, where he meets the owner’s daughter, Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tomlinson) and learns more of the story.

Now full of sadness and aware that something is not quite right with Vincent’s death, Armand makes inquiries among the townsfolk to see what he can learn. But the more he learns, the more perplexing the situation is, and the more aware Armand becomes of the intricacies and contradictions in the stories he’s told and the explanations he’s given.

The movie is visually and aurally astounding. Loving Vincent is hand-painted in oils in the style of van Gogh’s own paintings, thus immersing the viewer in a simulacrum of the world as seen by van Gogh himself. Involving six years of development, 125 painters and 65,000 paintings, the film is an incredible testament to the dedication and creativity of its principal authors, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman. Regular Darren Aronofsky collaborator Clint Mansell’s haunting soundtrack drums into the hearer the building emotional pressure of the great artist’s experience of life.

Loving Vincent brings to the fore the theory that Vincent’s death was not the result of his own actions, as is commonly believed. Rather, it suggests that his shooting may have come about as the result of a tragic accident involving one of the town’s young swells, who was known to torment Vincent and did own a gun. This view, most recently expressed in Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s 2011 biography Van Gogh: The Life, is controversial but bears exploring.

Much like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Loving Vincent is a detective story that seeks to determine not so much why a man died but how he lived. Armand travels across France much as the reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) in that movie did, asking those he comes across for their recollections, and ultimately unsure of what he has discovered. Like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, it shows how different perspectives on events lead to different remembering of events, and in so doing it doesn’t so much challenge the notion that objective truth can be discovered, but shows how finding that truth becomes intricate and is complicated by the different understandings of witnesses themselves.

Ultimately, the movie has no answer, no resolution – but what it does have is the sublime experience of what van Gogh left – his art.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).

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