Film reviews

Loving Vincent – Film review

STARRING: Douglas Booth, Robert Gulaczyk, Jerome Flynn, Helen McCrory, Aidan Turner, Saoirse Ronan, John Sessions, Chris O’Dowd

DIRECTED BY: Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman
WRITTEN BY: Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman

Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s Loving Vincent is an animated noir drama that follows the famously yellow-jacketed, brimmed hat-wearing, blacksmith’s apprentice Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) as he attempts to unravel the mysterious suicide of his distant acquaintance and 19th Century post-impressionist artist, Vincent van Gogh. Through a series of embedded narratives tracking conflicting and sometimes unreliable interviews by Armand with the subjects of Van Gogh’s now famous portraits about the whereabouts and circumstances of the artist’s demise – all of which are taken from real-life documented accounts and pieced together by Welchman and Kobiela to form a structured narrative – the plot delights in revealing snippets of information about the late life and sudden death of the mono-eared Dutchman.

That may all be well and good, but the story is not what makes Loving Vincent quite so special and unique as it so unequivocally is…

Imagine, for a second, everybody’s favourite cheese-eating man and dog pals, Wallace and Gromit. We’ve all seen their films, usually after a hearty Christmas meal slumped in front of the TV. Now think about how Aardman Animations make Wallace and Gromit. Plasticine models, moved a fraction at a time, with thousands upon thousands of individual photos taken of the models in position. It takes an unimaginable amount of time and the result, like all stop-motion movies, is a feat of animation ingenuity, dexterity and precision.

Now, imagine if instead of animating models moved with poise and delicacy, you had to hand paint onto a canvas every individual frame of said film; and not only are you hand painting each frame, but you are doing so with a team of over 120 other artists, all of whom are imitating the style of one of the most posthumously influential painters the world has ever seen.

Orson Welles, who is so often associated with the embedded narrative style of filmmaking thanks to his 1941 classic Citizen Kane, once said: “Theatre is a collective experience; cinema is the work of one single person.”

Therefore, Loving Vincent is either theatre and not cinema, or Orson Welles is wrong, because at 12 frames per second, for over 90 minutes, every single split second had to be individually hand painted by a team of remarkable artists all working in tandem for over two years. Every movement, every intake of breath, every sideways glance, every single thing required a person, sat at an easel, caressing a canvas with a paint brush, taking a photo, and then scrubbing it out and starting all over again. One artist who worked on the film, Sarah Wimperis, told the audience at the film’s screening in the National Gallery on Monday that she personally painted 380 frames over the period of five months… Resulting in just 31 seconds of the movie.

But, away from the sheer magnificence and astonishingly impressive construction of the animation, the big question that lots of people (who didn’t read Callum’s London Film Festival write-up) will want to know is: is Loving Vincent actually any good?

Yes. Yes, it is. The noir element perfectly compliments the sometimes haunting, sometimes astonishingly beautiful artwork.  Everybody from Douglas Booth as Armand, to Jerome Flynn as Doctor Gachet, the man responsible for treating Van Gogh’s “melancholia” and who first introduced the artist to a paint brush at age 27, and the rest of the spectacular supporting cast including Helen McCrory, Aidan Turner, Soirsie Ronan, John Sessions and Chris O’Dowd – and not forgetting Robert Gulaczyk as the Dutch painter himself – all had to act in front of a chroma key. They weren’t CGI’d, they weren’t voice acting, they weren’t “doing an Andy Serkis” for want of a better phrase; they were there, in the flesh, and their image was captured by artists with some rotoscoping (i.e. their image was projected onto a canvas and painted over).

The film is not entirely faultless. Though they did well to know which famous paintings to include and which to cut out to save on mildly contrived circumstances, over 80 pictures were absorbed into the plot. Each character’s first appearance was introduced with the original portraits by Van Gogh, before coming to life so extraordinarily. But it does mean there are lots of scenes that, though useful for cutaways and to break up the pace and so on and so forth, it does occasionally feel slightly stilted, although incredibly emotional all the same. There is a deep-seated sadness about the tragic story of a man who went “from calm, to suicidal in six weeks”, who was a lonely, isolated being, who may have been protecting someone on his death bed, or may have chosen to end his own life. Armand’s journey from mild annoyance, to staggering disbelief and grief-stricken refusal to accept the finality of a broken man’s life, is suspenseful, heart-achingly sad, and frustrating all at the same time. The biggest compliment that can be paid to the story is that it resists eulogising Van Gogh. Using facts that were only uncovered during the research process of making Loving Vincent, everything plays out like a true reluctant-detective story and fittingly marries with Clint Mansell’s affecting score.

If you only get one opportunity to watch Loving Vincent in your lifetime, then you should try to ensure that it’s on the biggest screen possible. The traditional box-square Hollywood aspect ratio aside, it’s a film that needs to fill the room. Although I suspect whether you see it at the cinema or in a few months at home, it will do just that anyway. It’s already a cliché to say it, but I’m going to say it anyway: Loving Vincent is unlike any film you have seen before. Just like Lianne La Havas’s cover of Don McLeans ‘Starry Starry Night’ over the closing credits, it’s probably the closest a narrative drama will ever get to helping us understand what Vincent tried to say to us.

Loving Vincent is release in select cinemas nationwide today. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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