Van Gogh’s paintings have long served as inspiration for animators. I’ve wandered through virtual reality versions of his Paris bars, the lights glowing with distinctive halos, and various filmmakers have attempted to realise the movement implied by the painter’s brush strokes.
But Loving Vincent does it on a whole other level. It’s a labour of love that took more than 100 artists six years to complete, with every one of the 65,000 frames first filmed then painstakingly oil painted. The process is similar to the one used by Richard Linklater in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, but the results are in a league of their own.
While some scenes are entirely imagined, many use van Gogh’s paintings as a starting point, subjects ambling through them, his famous wheat fields undulating in the breeze. It’s awe-inspiring, so rich and textured as to be almost overwhelming, every inch of the frame so bright and alive it borders on psychedelic.
The work of the production artists is exceptional, capturing the spirit of the paintings, complementing them rather than pastiching, especially the rolling landscapes and candle-lit bars; the only real criticism is that some of the faces stray a little from van Gogh’s style in their bid to make the actors more recognisable.
This alone should be enough to convince you to see it, but there’s also a plot, and an intriguing one at that. It sets up a whodunnit of sorts, posing the question Who Killed Vincent van Gogh? The majority of the action takes place in the months following the artist’s death, with pugnacious young rogue Armand Roulin, the son of van Gogh’s postman, setting out to discover what happened in the six days between the artist writing home to say he felt perfectly well, and his suicide. What, or who, was the catalyst for his death?
Douglas Booth plays Roulin Jr, while Chris O’Dowd is on familiar ground as his wonderfully dour postmaster father. The supporting cast includes Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan, Poldark star Aiden Turner, and Robert Gulaczyk as the painter himself, who appears in frequent flashbacks. These sequences are black and white, and adhere to a more formal, less impressionistic style, which is a neat way of demarcating time but a slightly muddled visual metaphor: it hints at the world of colour opened up by van Gogh’s art, but applies it only posthumously, rather than when he’s actually painting.
There remains a question of how strong Loving Vincent would be without the visuals. The brilliant cast aren’t given a great deal to sink their teeth into, with the dialogue existing largely as a bridge between one exquisite backdrop and the next. The pseudo murder mystery, meanwhile, peters out, draining tension from the final act.
But these sins are easily forgiven, far outweighed by the purely sensational pleasure of existing for 90 minutes inside the masterful strokes of a van Gogh painting.
First published in City A.M.