Loving Vincent: Film Review
Opens in Los Angeles September 29, 2017
By Shana Nys Dambrot
Imagine a whole universe of people, places, and things made entirely from the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. Now imagine being immersed in that world, where an emotional story of a genius’ troubled life and tragic final days unravels as a suspenseful, intimate, surprising mystery. This is “Loving Vincent,” a new feature film using a technique best described as “oil-painting animation” in which a team of some 125 artists from around the world traveled to studios in Poland and Greece, and hand-painted all 65,000 frames of the live-action movie, and laid the extensive, richly detailed foundation for the sights and sounds of an 1880’s world bordered by Arles, Auvers-sur-Oise, and Paris. Viewers move through it as though with not only the eyes but a real feeling in the body. Perhaps it’s the thickly flickering, brilliantly hued, gestural contours of the imagery, but it seems to affect the brain. There’s a moment about 20 minutes in when you realize you’ve entered the world and internalized its logic. It feels like inhabitation; it is the closest to seeing the world as Vincent saw it as anyone else could get.
The profound love and respect with which the artists treat van Gogh’s compositional and gestural intentions is obvious at every turn. The film is a technical marvel, a triumph of craft. As the story (and what a story it is!) moves from portraits to rooms, streets, pastoral views, still lifes, and settings, every so often something clicks into place, and the scene resolves into a fully realized painting that viewers recognize, before fluidly morphing into action and perspective again. The magic is in the in-betweens, in the way the filmmakers build their plot around those landmark scenes and people, deftly stringing these iconic works together to form linear plot points, giving the characters a good reason to be at those places, meeting those people, and having those dreams.
And about the plot. No spoilers but just to say, it takes skills to make a riddle out of one of the most well-known biographies in all of art history. The film is suspenseful, thought-provoking, and satisfyingly resolved. It’s funny, tender, and passionate. The hero is the gorgeous and moody son of Arles postman Joseph Roulin, who has been instructed to deliver the letter in a final gesture of friendship for the dead painter. The protagonist drinks at the Night Cafe, visits the artist’s bedroom, the field with crows, stays in Van Gogh’s room at the inn, and converses with the subject of about a dozen portraits — all in service of a straightforward story of mystery and misunderstood genius, revolving around the delivery of a posthumous letter from Vincent to Theo. From Paris to the town of Auvers-sur-Oise where he finally meets the famous Doctor Gachet and his daughter, the story follows the uncovering of intimate details, unanswerable questions, and great insight into the painter’s last days. The letter in question is signed “…your loving Vincent” as was his habit. He appears in generous flashback.
The movie is a truly international Polish-US-Greek-UK production with a remarkable cast of great actors including Jerome Flynn (Game of Thrones, Ripper Street), Helen McCrory (Harry Potter, Peaky Blinders), Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn, Atonement) and a host of BBC favorites. One imagines the actors preparing for their roles with art books instead of scripts, and character studies being done at museums. Extrapolating personality from a painting and evoking a sense of place through landscape, this is using art as it is intended. Warning: afterward, the real world pales by comparison.
Directors: Dorota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman
Writers: Jacek Dehnel, Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman
Cast: Douglas Booth, Jerome Flynn, Chris O’Dowd, Saoirse Ronan, Eleanor Tomlinson, Aidan Turner, John Sessions, Helen McCrory
Runtime: 94 minutes | Rating: PG-13
In Theaters: Los Angeles, September 29, 2017 | National Expansion in Oct and Nov, 2017