There have been countless films about artists, their art, muses, inspirations and demons. Some are immediately forgettable. Others we would like to forget, but often can’t. And then there are a few that add some light – or colour – to the life or work of their subject.
Art is clearly in vogue in cinema at the moment, with a slew of films related to that world. Most notably, Ruben Ostlünd’s wildly entertaining The Square picked up the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. But we’ll come to that biting satire of the art world in a few days. Before that, there are two other art portraits screening at the year’s festival: Beuys and Loving Vincent.
Andres Vieil’s documentary might seem the more conventional of the two films. A straightforward portrait of the German artist whose conceptual work, frequently employing felt and animal fat, was confrontational if oblique. Joseph Beuys’ most famous story is that he managed to survive bitterly cold weather, following his Luftwaffe plane crashing in the war, by covering himself in the very animal fat that he sources for his work. It has been now been widely debunked. However, its truthfulness isn’t called into question by Vieil. Instead, he employs it as part of a strategy to present Beuys’ whole life as an artwork. There is little doubt that Beuys’ remarkable facility for self-mythologizing helped push him into the art world’s limelight. What is more fascinating, as evinced by the wonderful archive footage Veiel has sourced, is how articulate Beuys was in explaining his work. If some installations appeared remote or evaded interpretation, Beuys proved to be a canny guide – more open than one would have expected and certainly a contrast to the man with the sunken, grave face that initially welcomes audiences to this compelling film.
Vincent Van Gogh doesn’t appear directly in Loving Vincent, a gorgeous paean to the Dutch artist’s style of painting, by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman. Instead, he takes form through the memories of those who knew him during his last year, before he committed suicide in 1890. A Citizen Kane-like narrative finds the son of the postmaster who used to deliver letters to Van Gogh sent on an errand to find the painter’s brother, Theo, in order to deliver one final missive. Though Van Gogh’s sibling has also perished, the young man decides to investigate why the artist killed himself. But he soon discovers that the truth is subject to prejudice, petty jealousies and personal agendas.
What is so remarkable about Loving Vincent is the way it is shot. The mostly British cast were filmed and then a team of artists (including a large group based in Wrocław) painstakingly painted every frame before the film was realised digitally. Beyond previous examples of Rotoscope filmmaking, Loving Vincent attempts to literally bring Van Gogh’s paintings to life. Occasionally, a familiar image will appear, only to morph into an everyday activity. Most impressively, a subtle use of digital manipulation transports us from the colourful present to a monochrome past, the journey made all the more fluid by Clint Mansell’s beautiful, evocative score. If the opening scenes of Loving Vincent appear trite (for British ears, the sound of Douglas Booth with a colloquial London accent and Chris O’Dowd – with his thick Irish brogue – as his father might be a bit much), the film soon casts a seductive spell. And the sadness of Van Gogh’s fate weighs heavy as a montage of his real paintings accompany the closing credits.
Ian Haydn Smith is a British writer and editor. Formerly the editor of the International Film Guide, he is the co-author of New British Cinema and author of the forthcoming The Story of Photography. He has attended New Horizons since 2008.