Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman
This is a beautifully made animation of the life of Vincent Van Gogh, told in retrospect about a year after his death. It is done in the style of Van Gogh’s painting with many of the paintings of Van Gogh incorporated into the various scenes and events depicted. It is an interesting concept and makes the film especially engaging if you are familiar with the paintings of Van Gogh. The animus for the film is the attempt to deliver Van Gogh’s final letter to his brother Theo. The letter had been mailed, but was returned as undeliverable. The postmaster, Roulin, who knew Van Gogh well, because Van Gogh was such a prolific letter writer, enlists his son, Armand, to seek out Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, and deliver the letter personally. However, Theo is already dead, having passed away just six months after Vincent. Armand’s quest and the various people in Van Gogh’s life whom he meets in his travels is the content of the film.
As he delves into Van Gogh’s life and the circumstances of his death, Armand becomes something of a detective, attempting to piece together the strands of an intriguing mystery, namely, Van Gogh’s alleged suicide at age 37. The film is ultimately disappointing. After building a compelling case for Van Gogh being murdered rather than committing suicide, it backs off its provocative conclusion and concedes that Doctor Gachet’s official account is most likely correct, even though Gachet was a prime suspect and had plenty of motivation. I felt that these filmmakers were timid and conservative and failed to look closely at Van Gogh’s life, his character, and his relationships, particularly with Doctor Gachet. There is no in depth examination of Doctor Gachet other than to present his version of the story, in which he poses as a sort of paternal figure to this troubled, wayward soul and absolves himself, of course, of any role in Van Gogh’s death. This film stayed very much on the surface. It presented the obvious, the known facts, as well as the questions that have been around since 1890, but then settles for the conventional interpretation and understanding of events. But it doesn’t add up.
First of all it does not present us with a fleshed out portrait of Van Gogh himself. We get a better feel for the character of Armand than we do for Van Gogh. This is an honorific presentation that depicts Van Gogh as the struggling, rejected, misunderstood artist, totally devoted to his art, but without any deep insight into what was driving him and how it was that his closest relationships tended to become antagonistic (Gauguin, Gachet, Rene Secretan, Theo). Van Gogh seems to have been soundly rejected by most of the people of the town of Auvers-sur-Oise where he was living. Kids threw stones at him while he was out in the fields painting. Numerous people in the town seemed to harbor an intense dislike for him. Why? Were they just bigoted and hostile to outsiders of any kind, or was there something particular about Van Gogh or his behavior that antagonized them? There is no consideration given to the possibility of a same sex liaison with either Gachet, or Rene. In fact, this film presents Van Gogh as more or less asexual. But this was a man who cut off his ear and gave it to a whore. What was that all about? The film does not go into it.
There is so much that this film leaves out. It’s no wonder it cannot make sense of Van Gogh’s death. I think Don McLean’s song, “Vincent,” (which I have always liked) has helped to popularize this romantic conception of Van Gogh the Saint, Van Gogh the Martyr, Van Gogh the Apostle of Goodness and Light to a world of darkness and stiffnecked, uncomprehending recalcitrants. It sells, but how real is it?
Van Gogh started painting for the first time at age 28, according to this film, and he was largely self taught. Fine, but there must have been precursors, something must have laid a foundation, there must have been some preparation. He didn’t just hatch from an egg fully developed. There is little examination of his childhood, except for his loneliness and his mother’s grieving devotion to a stillborn older brother. I think this was very crucial and it is rather summarily glossed over. The significance is not comprehended. He spent some time in an insane asylum, which in those days could be quite wretched. But for what? What were his symptoms?
Suicide can be made plausible in almost anyone. Everyone has frustrations, disappointments, and difficulties in their life, and suicides do occur in people who otherwise seem to be doing well — such as Van Gogh. Suicides are often staged or declared by authorities to cover up murders. Intelligence agencies, the FBI, local police forces and prisons often do this. Medical examiner reports can be written to declare or to cover up a suicide. In this case, Dr. Gachet, himself a prime suspect, was the authoritative opinion. The gun that was used was never found, and Van Gogh did not own a gun — but Gachet did. There are a whole array of suspicious circumstances surrounding Van Gogh’s death. The film does a good job of laying them out, and then closes by endorsing Gachet’s version of events.
This film is just plain unsatisfying and doesn’t make any sense. Van Gogh doesn’t make any sense, and his alleged suicide doesn’t make any sense. I just don’t buy any of this story, that is, the interpretation of his life and death that is served up. Somebody else needs to do this better. These filmmakers were too enthralled with Van Gogh’s art to actually see the man. They did a magnificent job of presenting Van Gogh’s paintings and his style in animation. They raised provocative questions about his death and what might have led up to it, and singled out several likely candidates who might have played a role in it. But they lack psychological insight and sophistication. They seem naive and shallow in their understanding of human relations. Maybe someone got to them. Maybe it was decided that it is better for business to keep this myth alive of Van Gogh the tortured, misunderstood artist who kills himself at the height of his powers, than to promote the idea that he was most likely murdered in an ill fated love venture, or killed in a drunken fracas with some low life companions.
My opinion is that Gachet is the most likely perpetrator. Rene Secretan is less likely unless the shooting was an accidental outcome of drunken horseplay — a possibility not even floated in the film. Rene looks a little bit like the Lee Harvey Oswald of this drama: the bewildered patsy who was set up to take the fall.
The film does leave a strong impression. The imagery in the style of Van Gogh is quite striking and memorable. The circumstantial case for Van Gogh being murdered rather than a suicide is quite convincing and leaves me strongly curious. And the sense of dissatisfaction at this film’s spinelessness, its conservatism, and its lack of follow through is also very strong and enduring.