Movie Review: Loving Vincent.
This hand-painted Oscar nominated film is not only beautiful but contains an engaging mystery narrative.
While it may seem Disney’s Coco has a firm lock on this year’s Oscar for animation, there have been several excellent films in the category. We’ve reviewed many nominees this year, and with one week left to go till the 90th Academy Awards, I wanted to make sure to cover this innovative film before the big show.
Loving Vincent is a mystery drama about the final week of Vincent Van Gogh’s tumultuous life, which ended in his apparent suicide. The film is animated in oil paint and brings to life many of the most celebrated images and figures from Van Gogh’s artwork. While the artistry of the hand-painted animation would be enough to recommend Loving Vincent to cinephiles, the engaging story and solid acting behind the lovely visuals makes this dramatization worthy of a much wider audience.
Loving Vincent (2017).
Armand Roulin is a headstrong youth, eager to fight and eager to drink. He is pulled out of his bitterness by his father, a postmaster and friend of Vincent Van Gogh. After the shocking news of Van Gogh’s death, by apparent self inflicted gunshot wound, the elder Roulin is left holding a letter that Vincent meant to send to his brother, Theo Van Gogh. Armand is sent to dispatch it, but it turns out that Theo has died as well. Armand goes on a journey to discover a fitting recipient, but winds up instead interviewing those who knew the mysterious painter in the last days of his life. Soon, he’s convinced that Vincent’s death is a greater mystery than his final undelivered letter.
The artistic merit of this film is without equal. A team of hundreds of painters hand painted the individual cells in oil paints over the course of six years, painstakingly recreating famous works by Van Gogh and bringing them to life. The cast and crew staged the scenes which were then digitally composited and given to the animators to paint, which was again digitally captured. The painstaking process yields a film that is fluid and dense, redolent of the techniques of Van Gogh’s work.
As a work of film, it is no less a masterpiece. The usual, hidden techniques of the cinematographer such as fades, dissolves, tracking and panning shots and wipes are executed through the brushstrokes. The novel medium makes them stand out like you’re seeing them for the first time. After hundreds of years of cinema, it’s hard to see these common tricks with fresh eyes, the way early audiences must have when film was young. Through the use of a new medium you can feel the wonder of each shot like you’ve never seen it performed before.
Form and Function.
While it is easy to wonder at the techniques, directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman craft a sound narrative that I found surprisingly effective. With visual tour de force films, you usually just get a serviceable plot, a bare skeleton to hang the images off of. Here, the mystery at the heart of the story is developed deftly as we follow Armand through a series of interviews that fade away into black and white flashbacks. These not only give us a brief tour through the life and work of Van Gogh, they also provide several competing theories who vie with each other in Armand (and the audience’s) mind. Each time an “ah ha!” moment arrives, a new character arrives to show how the events change when seen through their reminiscence.
The cast does a solid job of giving life to the various characters, many of whom are given whole stories based on just one painting from Van Gogh. The main characters are drawn from both Vincent’s works and the historical record, though much is embellished by imagination to further the narrative. A few of the roles are noticeably weaker, but protagonists such as Armand (Douglas Booth) and Vincent’s caretaker/doctor (Jerome Flynn) give striking performances. I was especially impressed by Eleanor Tomlinson’s turn as Adeline Ravoux, the daughter of the innkeeper where Vincent spent his final weeks. She gives a vibrant performance and her uncanny resemblance to the painting upon which she is modeled is the best instance of the animators bringing a canvas to life.
Saving Vincent is not a flawless film. There is something about the method of animation that makes movement seem top heavy and lurching in places. Much like the short animation sequence for Ridley Scott‘s Scott Free logo, the characters come off as a tad ungainly during rapid motion. The painted hair doesn’t move realistically, giving a slight impression of plastic hairpieces from 1990’s European pop songs. A few of the vocal performances feel stilted and disjointed from the character actions. On the whole, though, these issues appear very infrequently.
Loving Vincent is a fantastic animated film that challenges the medium. It’s no tech demo or gimmick. At it’s best, the film frequently evokes time and place as richly as Van Gogh’s work, and feels like you’ve stepped inside the painting. An early sequence has a tracking shot that begins in the familiar “Starry Sky” painting and then winds its way around the chapel of the painting down to the city street, which is modeled upon a separate painting. It’s a breathtaking shot. The film is filled with such lovely moments, yet it never feels extraneous to the story or experience. It’s hard to imagine when such a film, that took so many so long and had to rely in part on crowdfunding, will come again. It may just be a shooting star across a starry sky, which is all the more reason to see it while you can.
(Loving Vincent is currently available for streaming on services such as Amazon Prime.)