Loving Vincent (2017) – Film Review

An arduous labour of love by a team of over one hundred professional artists, Loving Vincent, released in 2017, turns the renowned artwork and tragic life story of the celebrated post-impressionist artist, Vincent van Gogh, into an extraordinary biopic. Initially filmed in live-action before every frame was then hand-painted over in the distinct style of van Gogh’s artwork, Loving Vincent impressively employs hundreds upon hundreds of oil paintings and transforms them into a hypnotic and ambitious animated biography, even if its story and characters are less effectively crafted than its dazzling visuals.

Plot Summary: In the summer of 1891, one year after the presumed suicide of unwonted artist, Vincent van Gogh. Postman, Joseph Roulin, tasks his reluctant son, Armand Roulin, with delivering one of the artist’s final letters to his brother, Theo van Gogh, in Paris. But, when Armand arrives in the French capital, learning that Theo has, too, met his demise, he pledges to investigate van Gogh’s untimely death by venturing to the scenic town of Auvers-sur-Oise…

Obtaining a large amount of attention after its nomination for an Academy Award for Best Animated Picture in 2018. Loving Vincent is one of the most unique films to emerge from the animation genre in recent years as immediately from the hand-painted opening title sequence, preceded by van Gogh’s quote; “We Cannot Speak Other Than by Our Paintings.” The audience is pulled into van Gogh’s hyper-sensual worldview through the film’s striking aesthetic. Aside from the astonishing visuals, directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman also provide an alternative take on the historic biopic by having the life of Vincent van Gogh viewed from the perspective of a young man, via the stories he is told by those who knew him. And even though this investigative storyline doesn’t quite match up to the amazing visuals on display, it’s an engaging story, nonetheless.

While the main cast of Douglas Booth, Eleanor Tomlinson, Saoirse Ronan, Robert Gulaczyk, Jerome Flynn, the late Helen McCrory and Chris O’Dowd, are all terrific in their performances, none of the characters retain a French accent. And considering that the story takes place in 1800s France, I feel the immersion of the time period/setting could’ve been greatly increased should the filmmakers have chosen to cast English-speaking French actors/actresses. Moreover, similar to the narrative, the characters of Loving Vincent are one of the film’s lesser impressive aspects. Whilst Armand Roulin is serviceable as a headstrong protagonist, eager to fight and drink before he is pulled out of his slump and instructed to deliver van Gogh’s final letter, subsequently becoming more and more invested in the alleged suicide of the gifted yet largely detested artist. The majority of the characters are given little characterisation and merely serve as plot devices to edge Armand towards his next acquaintance/eyewitness.

Moving onto the visuals, Loving Vincent was predominantly animated through the rotoscope technique; an animation process that consists of tracing over live-action footage frame-by-frame. This technique allowed the filmmakers to implement the characters into a number of visually stunning environments, along with numerous recreations of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings. However, only the sequences set in 1891 are animated in the style of van Gogh’s artwork, as flashback sequences are animated in the style of black and white photographs of the time period, providing a clear visual distinction. Additionally, details such as cigarette smoke, clouds or flowing rivers make for fantastic transitions between scenes. On the whole, the visuals of Loving Vincent almost appear like purified echoes of Vincent van Gogh’s artwork, as the cinematography by Tristan Oliver and Lukasz Zal, combined with the vibrant colour palette and beguiling art style, results in countless enchanting shots.

From the outset, the original score by Clint Mansell backs up the stylistic visuals with a sombre and atmospheric soundscape. Through tracks like The Night CaféThe Yellow HouseMarguerite Gachet at the Piano and Five Sunflowers in a Vase, the score creates a sense of sadness that parallels the difficult life Vincent van Gogh led. Furthermore, despite having a noticeable lack of movement in the background of certain scenes, the sound design goes a long way in fleshing out the environment around the characters, whether that be the bustling streets of Paris or a quaint farm in Auvers-sur-Oise.

According to Loving Vincent‘s official website, the collective effort of the many talented artists that worked on the project resulted in a total of eight hundred and fifty-three oil paintings, as each art piece was utilised multiple times, with succeeding frames being painted on top of the original paintings. In the final film, there are around fifty thousand hand-painted frames, which is truly an incredible feat of artsy when taking into account how much time went into just a single scene.

In summary, Loving Vincent is an outstanding achievement, not only in the genre of animation, but also in the world of filmmaking. While the story and characters do leave room for improvement, these minor issues hardly detract from Loving Vincent‘s main attribute; its ravishing visuals. From the phenomenal use of colour to the detailed backdrops and innumerable visual references to van Gogh’s most recognised artwork, Loving Vincent is a captivating tribute to one of history’s most influential artists. And, as such, I’d say Loving Vincent is a biopic well worth seeking out, even if it’s merely for the experience of witnessing the craftsmanship of hundreds of animated oil paintings on-screen. Rating: low 9/10.

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