Loving Vincent – movie review

by James Robins / 15 February, 2018
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Moments of pastiche and a lack of intrigue can’t spoil a visually sensuous experience.

Loving Vincent is, surprisingly, the first entirely hand-painted feature film. Its painstaking creation took six years, a Kickstarter campaign, and more than 100 artists.

Actors were filmed in front of green screens, and their movements digitally stitched, frame-by-frame, into backgrounds – 65,000 all told, each hand-painted in oil or drawn in charcoal, all in the vibrant, sensuous style of Vincent van Gogh. The result has neither the warmth of celluloid nor the pristine coolness of digital and it’s mesmerising: it pulses and shimmers and flickers with colours, like the vivid hallucinations of a fever dream.

Because each frame is minutely different from the one before, even the quietest scenes seem frantic with motion. The rosy shading on a character’s cheek seems to throb with life when seen so large.

The arresting unreality of this visual style calls to mind the rotoscoped sci-fi A Scanner Darkly or the animated doco Waltz with Bashir.

A year after van Gogh’s death in 1890, Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) is sent by his postman father (Chris O’Dowd) to the small French village where the artist lived out his final months, to give the painter’s brother Theo an undelivered letter from Vincent. Gradually, Roulin finds himself wondering whether van Gogh really shot himself, or whether someone else is to blame for his death.

His investigation brings him into contact with other figures who had been subjects for van Gogh in those last weeks: John Sessions as Père Tanguy, Saoirse Ronan as Marguerite Gachet and Jerome Flynn as her father Dr Gachet.

As these characters are introduced, they are shown for a still second, as if hung in a gallery, before warping into sudden life. Vincent (Robert Gulaczyk) appears by way of flashbacks drained of all colour, appearing as vivid black marks constantly dissolving and emerging on a shadowy field.

Unfortunately, the architecture that holds up this parade of lovely images is a little rickety. Loving Vincent indulges in pastiche (there’s nods to both sunflowers and starry nights) and there’s not enough intrigue in the story to ward off tedium at the end.

Perhaps because expressions are so smudged and movements so weightless, the wonders of Loving Vincent don’t really extend past its magical aesthetic. But what wonders they are.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★1/2

This article was first published in the February 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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