Loving Vincent (2017)

Douglas Booth becomes a painting in the unique Loving Vincent

Director: Doreta Kobiela, Hugh Welchman

Cast: Douglas Booth (Armand Roulin), Jerome Flynn (Paul Gachet), Saoirse Ronan (Marguerite Gachet), Helen McCrory (Louise Chevalier), Chris O’Dowd (Joseph Roulin), John Sessions (Père Tanguy), Eleanor Tomlinson (Adeline Ravoux), Aidan Turner (Boatman), Robert Gulaczyk (Vincent van Gogh)

Now this is something very different. It’s a common turn of phrase to praise a well-photographed film by saying every frame looks like a painting. Well Loving Vincent is a film where every single frame is literally a painting. A beautifully painted pastiche collection of van Goghs, painted over a combination of motion capture and photographs of real locations. And, as you would expect, it is beautiful. 

The film covers events year after the suicide of Vincent van Gogh (Robert Gulaczyk). Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) tries to deliver van Gogh’s last letter to his brother Theo. Roulin’s father Joseph (Chris O’Dowd) is also concerned that there is more to the death than meets the eye, as van Gogh had written to him that all was well in his life. Roulin travels first to Paris and then to Auvers-sur-Oise, where van Gogh spent his final days, talking to those who knew him, including his landlady Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tomlinson), his art supplier Père Tanguy (John Sessions), the daughter of his doctor Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan) and finally Dr Gachet (Jerome Flynn) himself. 

Loving Vincent looks simply beautiful. Its quality is astonishing. The film was shot on green screen with actors. Van Gogh’s paintings were then overlaid as backgrounds for the action. The film was carefully edited, then every frame in the final film was turned into a single hand painting – with real paint. 65,000 hand-painted frames. It’s astonishing – you’ve never seen anything like this before. The style, the homages to van Gogh, the respect and craft behind reproducing his distinctive look – it’s marvellous. Every single image in the film demands you linger upon it and soak it in.

I simply haven’t ever seen a film like this before. I can’t imagine any film like this being made again (for starters it took years to make). It demands to be seen if you have any interest in art or any interest in cinema as a visual artform. It’s so impressively done, you start falling in love with its artistry. It’s also got a poetic visual beauty to it. The flashbacks showing van Gogh’s last few days are put together with a black-and-white pencil-drawn style, which contrasts beautifully with the primary colours of the present day. The film walks a brilliant tightrope line between “real” and dreamlike wonder – final shots of van Gogh or sequences of Roulin dreaming feel like real visual expressions of inner thoughts in their greater expressionist vibrancy.

If there is a weakness to the film, it is that (whisper it) there isn’t much actually to it once you look past the visuals. It’s truly unique in look and feel but the story it delivers is fairly traditional and even (at times) a little flat. Despite being soaked in van Gogh I’m not sure you learn too much about him or his art from the film, and the film shies away from its more interesting topics. The dialogue or plotting rarely ventures above the average.

Perhaps one of the most interesting themes of the film is the struggle of the characters to understand and appreciate the difficulties of depression: that suffers can be optimistic one minute, and consumed with world-ending self-loathing the next. It would have been more interesting if the film had engaged more with this theme, rather than trying to build a rather flat murder mystery around van Gogh’s death. It also would have felt more true to the actual struggles of the artist – crikey, this material was spun out into an excellent Doctor Who episode, which feels like it managed to get more understanding of van Gogh than this film manages.

The acting however is pretty good – Douglas Booth anchors the film every well as the nominal detective figure, struggling with his own guilt over abandoning van Gogh. Saoirse Ronan is very good as a sad love opportunity lost for van Gogh, Eleanor Tomlinson radiant as his friendly hostess, Jerome Flynn tragically guilt-ridden and envious as Dr Gachet. It may not be a film that really gives actors the opportunity to let rip, but it’s still good.

The main question over Loving Vincent is whether there is enough to it to make it more than an art experiment, or a curiosity. Plot and storyline wise it’s a very traditional, rather straightforward film, but it carries a germ of depth in there. And then the film looks so uniquely marvellous that you can’t deny it a certain place in film history. Because you won’t see anything like this again, and if you have any love for the artist or art in general, you have to check it out. Every frame is literally a painting.

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