"The world’s first fully painted feature film,” Loving Vincent is a unique and stunning visual delight. The makers of this 94-minute animated movie have used more than 65,000 oil paintings that – put side by side – can cover around 1,631 square kilometres of land. Made by 125 different artists, these paintings together form all of the film’s 850 frames that are then turned into animated images. The outcome of this painstaking marriage between painting, animation and cinema is a groundbreaking work of art in its own right.
The frames are based on and expanded from 94 paintings made by the 19th century Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh whose life and death the film documents. His impressionist style, which is full of movement, lends itself easily and beautifully to animation. His landscapes form the spaces the characters in Loving Vincent inhabit. The film, for instance, opens with imagery closely resembling his 1889 work The Starry Night.
Those familiar with his work will also instantly recognise the characters in the movie. They are all based on his portraiture and many of them are first shown in the film just as they appear in his works. To cite only one example, the character of Doctor Mazery is based on the man shown in an 1890 painting titled Sorrowing Old Man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’). When Mazery is introduced in Loving Vincent, he is sitting on a chair, holding his head — exactly as the man in the artwork did.
The fictional events of Loving Vincent take place one year after Van Gogh’s death. Joseph Roulin (O’Dowd), a postmaster whose family he painted extensively, finds a letter written by the artist to his brother Theo. Joseph tells his eldest son, Armand (Booth), to find Theo and deliver the letter to him. As Armand embarks on his quest, he starts to discover the mysterious circumstances in which Van Gogh died.
The mystery of a celebrated artist’s death is an engaging subject, especially when its actual circumstances are debated rather hotly even today. While most people believe that Van Gogh committed suicide, there are suggestions that someone might have shot him. Loving Vincent puts forward these various theories through its characters. The film-makers, however, are unable to accomplish this very successfully. For a script that relies heavily on what people say, the dialogue leaves much to be desired. The structure also becomes predictable and repetitive quite early on: Armand meets someone and they tell him whom he should see next; the next person similarly points him to the direction of yet another individual.
The film-makers also miss many opportunities to delve into Van Gogh’s mental health battles. Loving Vincent, for example, shows how he cut a part of his ear and how even children ridiculed him for doing so, but the film does not explore why it happened the way it happened. The film’s captivating visuals and its inventive cinematic approach – that gives it the look of canvases in motion – nevertheless keep the viewer engaged till the end.
Loving Vincent also provides glimpses of Van Gogh’s letters to his brother that relate parts of the artist’s personal story of struggle and death without recognition. He sold only one painting in his lifetime, a fact that makes this expensive cinematic tribute to an artist who died almost penniless look ironic.
Artist and gallerist Norman Crump’s words ring out in one’s head as one leaves the cinema after seeing this admittedly bold and beautiful experiment in visual arts: “Buy from living artists! Dead ones don’t need the money.”
This was originally published in the Herald's November 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
Fahad Naveed is a former staffer of the Herald.