By the time the opening titles of Loving Vincent come to a close, and the film itself begins, somewhere in the region of 1500 hand painted oil canvases, produced by professional artists and animators over the equivalent of perhaps 15-20 months will have glanced and glimmered across the screen. The result is, simply put, astonishing.
It has taken writer/directing duo Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman seven years to produce this labour of love; quite something when one considers that Vincent van Gogh himself was an active artist for one year longer. Seven years, that is, plus 125 artists and a mind-boggling 65,000 individually painted oil on canvas works of art. When Van Gogh wrote, in a letter of 1890, ‘We cannot speak other than by our paintings’ little could he have imagined, having sold just one artwork in his lifetime, that over a century later filmmakers would literalise it in a piece that is both tribute and experimental project of passion. It is a fascinating parallel to note that Loving Vincent is a film than dances on the boarder of photography and painting, telling the story of a time in which the Lumirère brothers and post-impressionists were doing the very same.
Through the recreated and newly animated vision of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, the film’s opening descends upon 1891 Arles, one year on from the day Vincent was said to have shot himself in a wheat field at Auvers-sur-Oise. Douglas Booth plays – to say ‘voices’ would be to neglect the intricacies of the extensive process – Armand Roulin, a real life subject of three portraits by Van Gogh, who is bequeathed the task of delivering the artist’s unsent last letter to his brother Theo van Gogh, by his father, and likewise portrait muse, Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd).
What follows is a procedural plot of murder-mystery beats. Armand, at first a disinterested drunk (‘My job is to bash metal into shape not deliver letters’), finds himself drawn into the unfolding web of lives and home truths as he moves between the people who knew Vincent before he died. With its black and white film noir flashbacks (inspired, cleverly, by contemporary photography) and stream of interviewees, Priestly’s An Inspector Calls comes to mind, not least as Armand begins to question who is really to blame for the artist’s death: ‘How does a man go from being absolutely calm to suicidal in six weeks?’
Drawn as it is from years of painstaking research, there’s a certain inevitability about quite how much Loving Vincent’s plot makes this all feel like an exhibition video of the sort found in modern-interactive galleries. An uneven script by Kobiela, Welchman and Jacek Dehnel only comes to life in bursts, often invigorated by the animation or well-chosen cast. Along with Booth and O’Dowd, the film boasts the talents of Jerome Flynn, Helen McCrory, the wonderful Saoirse Ronan, and Poldark’s Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson, with the latter delivering a range of accents that suggests she was told to do rural and couldn’t decide what that actually meant. Each has been drawn from the artist’s oeuvre, and animated in an oddly TinTin motion capture fashion.
Fairing least well in the ensemble, and pinpointing why the narrative structure fails to consistently grip, John Sessions appears too as the art dealer Père Tanguy. Sessions is Armand’s first point of call on his quest to deliver the Citizen Kane-esque McGuffin and does little more than sit and narrate the life story of Van Gogh. It’s a fascinating story but one told with little sense for the cinematic, not that one could deny the positive intentions and personal touches. Kobiela is herself a sufferer of depression and that emotional drive does pay its dues.
Does Loving Vincent work as a feature film? Perhaps not. But in terms of sheer audacity, this hypnotic masterpiece is utterly dazzling and entirely breathtaking.