LOVING VINCENT, animation, rated PG-13, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles
Vincent van Gogh was a brilliant artist who was also a bit mad. That description might apply as well to Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, the creators of Loving Vincent, a movie that is being billed as the world’s first fully hand-painted feature: Every frame has been executed by a team of 125 artists wielding paintbrushes, working in a technique in which each scene is shot in live action and then painted over (similar to the method used by Richard Linklater in Waking Life). Seven years in the making; 62,450 paintings! This is some 61,600 more than van Gogh produced in his short career.
The story line follows a vaguely Citizen Kane template of character discovery, with a dead letter serving as this film’s Rosebud. The letter, the last from van Gogh (Robert Gulaczyk) to his brother Theo (Cezary Łukaszewicz), is discovered by Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd), the postmaster at Arles, two years after the painter’s suicide. Roulin was fond of the artist who painted his and his family’s portraits, and he dispatches his son Armand (Douglas Booth) to deliver the letter. But Theo is dead by now too. So after discussing the matter with Père Tanguy ( John Sessions), Vincent’s Parisian paint supplier, Armand heads to Auvers-sur- Oise to give the letter to Dr. Gachet ( Jerome Flynn), the painter’s friend and physician. These two, like most of the denizens of this film, are famous today as subjects of van Gogh’s portraits.
But the doctor is not in, and Armand spends a few days talking to the locals and developing a case that Vincent may not have died by his own hand (a theory advanced in a controversial 2011 biography, Van Gogh:
The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith). The whodunit storyline is interesting enough, but that is not what will separate you from the price of a movie ticket. The appeal of Loving Vincent (the title derives from his sign-off to Theo, “Your Loving Vincent”) is in its extravagant visuals, classic van Gogh paintings brought to animated life and used as armatures for movie scenes. The story zigs back and forth between its present tense of Armand’s quest and flashbacks to the things he learns about the last year of Vincent’s life. The latter are rendered in a fairly pedestrian animated black-and-white realism and are more informative than inspiring. But the van Gogh animation is astonishingly clever and beautifully executed. It has also sparked a raging controversy over whether it succeeds on its own terms or whether it trivializes and debases the genius of the original canvases.
The latter argument smacks to me of overzealous purity. It’s a movie. And it’s in the world of the paintings, the world seen through the eyes of this visionary genius, that the movie truly delights. — Jonathan Richards
Portrait of an artist