by Morgan Moore and Catherine Harlow
As the first full length feature film animated entirely with oil paintings, “Loving Vincent” is unlike anything we have ever seen before. True, that may be stating the obvious, but it is one thing to know that fact and another to see it in action. Even having seen a few scattered clips and images released by the filmmakers, thus thinking we had a pretty good idea of what we were in for, we could not have predicted what the full ninety-five minute visual experience of “Loving Vincent” would be like. But the visuals are hardly the only surprising thing about the film. Turns out, the film is full of details that challenge our expectations and preconceptions about Vincent Van Gogh as a person, beginning with the title itself. ‘Loving’ the struggling, earnest, complicated man who was Vincent Van Gogh was a challenge for some of the characters the film depicts, but the titular phrase is more than simply the statement of an activity. It is also a description taken from Vincent’s letters, in which he signed himself ‘Your loving Vincent’. By telling Vincent’s story through his chosen medium, painting, which he once wrote was his best means of communication, and through the voices of characters whose lives he touched, the film gradually reveals a portrait of a loving Vincent.
The film itself is a labor of love, a project spanning six years and three countries. Writer-director Dorota Kobiela and her husband, producer and co-director Hugh Welchman, assembled a team of over one hundred classically trained oil painters after reviewing portfolios from more than two thousand applicants. The finished product combines some 65,000 original oil paintings at a rate of twelve paintings per second. Painted almost entirely in Van Gogh’s signature style, the film vividly brings to life the movement so powerfully suggested by his brushstrokes. Filmmakers also seamlessly integrated many of Van Gogh’s own works into the film, bringing to life a number of his characters and settings. For example, early on in the film a scene takes place in the bar from the famous “Night Cafe”. By showing an intimate look at this iconic setting, which in a way allows the audience to inhabit the space with the characters, the filmmakers set the stage for the intimate look the audience is about to experience of the troubled yet brilliant Van Gogh himself.
The opening credits are a breathtaking animation of “Starry Night”, which immediately situates the viewer in Van Gogh’s world and also introduces the viewer to the experience of watching brushstrokes roll, inch, and march across the screen. This movement can be as distracting as it is intriguing, and it does take a little time to learn how to focus on the resulting image and see the depth and perspective within each painted frame. Following Van Gogh’s style as carefully as they do also means using as much of his oeuvre as possible, so the film’s many characters are drawn from portraits or other works by Van Gogh. Postmaster Joseph Roulin, for example, whose desire to deliver Van Gogh’s final letter sets the film’s plot in motion, is the subject of several portraits.
One of the many technical details which make ‘Loving Vincent’ so impressive is the way the artists seamlessly blend the characters of Van Gogh’s paintings and the actors who portray them. Yet at the same time that Roulin’s painted appearance is that of Van Gogh’s friend and model, it is also the face of the actor providing Roulin’s voice, Chris O’Dowd. Just as Van Gogh referred to models in his own work, the painters for this film required reference footage in order to successfully paint each frame of the movie. Actors were filmed performing the movie’s scenes, shot by shot. The technique captures even the subtlest shifts of light and emotion in an actor’s face; it also means that one can be watching the film and suddenly recognize a celebrity’s face emerging within the shimmer of Van Gogh-esque brushstrokes.
The swirls of vivid colors and unusual perspectives which make Van Gogh’s style immediately recognizable are all there, but so is a contrasting style—scenes set in the past are rendered in black and white, the paint no longer thickly layered but smooth and in a more realistic style, with dramatic light and shadow evoking film noir. The film’s story is rooted in these flashbacks as much as it is in the swirling, colorful ‘present’, as Roulin’s son Armand makes his journey to deliver Van Gogh’s final letter and hears reminiscences from Van Gogh’s art dealer, doctor, and various friends. As much as these chiaroscuro flashbacks show the viewer the past, they also impress upon us how differently each individual saw Vincent and the events surrounding his death.
The visual experience and impact of the film is a wonder, and it is surprisingly intimate and complex in its storytelling. The viewer is plunged into Van Gogh’s world and seems to see through his eyes, even as the film’s narrative is told through the perspective of others’ memories of Vincent. It’s an unexpected blend that proves itself to be much more powerful than we could have anticipated.
Loving Vincent is playing in select theaters nationwide. For information and tickets, please visit http://us.lovingvincent.com/