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Review: Loving Vincent is a visual masterpiece unto itself

Robert Gulaczyk portrays Vincent van Gogh in Loving Vincent.

Courtesy of Mongrel Media

3 out of 4 stars

Loving Vincent
Written by
Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman and Jacek Dehnel
Directed by
Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman
Douglas Booth, Jerome Flynn, Robert Gulaczyk

Loving Vincent is gorgeous. It's a film of immersive beauty.

Watching it makes one feel like the protagonist in that old eighties A-Ha video who gets lured into the pages of a comic book by a come-hither hand and becomes absorbed into a pencil-drawn adventure. Except instead of some cheesy monochrome comic, the viewer is sucked into the gorgeous, colourful, highly engrossing landscapes of 19th-century Dutch post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh, the temperamental, half-psychotic painter called le fou roux ("the redheaded crazy"), who sliced off his left ear and delivered it to a brothel, whose life and work exist at the fateful intersection of madness and genius.

Loving Vincent intrigues at the level of construction alone. It purports to be – in its marketing campaign and with an introductory title card – "the world's first fully painted feature film," meaning that its individual frames (some 65,000 of them) were painted with oils on canvases by a team of more than 100 artists.

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Yet what may have come off in less ambitious hands as a painted flip book illustrating van Gogh's biography emerges as an actual, honest-to-God film. The camera (or the illusion of one) moves through these images. Characters move and talk and fist fight freely. The bar tops and French farmers' fields and hirsute postmasters and dark, starry nights that appear across van Gogh's paintings come thrillingly alive. The effect is somewhere between Richard Linklater's digitally rotoscoped films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly and, well, a van Gogh.

The story itself is a bit stiffer. Following a Citizen Kane-ish structure, Loving Vincent follows village roustabout Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), himself the subject of several van Gogh portraits, dispatched to deliver a letter to van Gogh's younger brother, Theo, a year after the artist's 1890 suicide. Along the way, Roulin speaks with friends, associates and loose-lipped gossipers about van Gogh's life, torn between portraits of the artist as a fiery madman and an impassioned lonely heart (the film, as its title suggests, tilts towards the latter). It all feels a bit procedural and chatty, the content bereft the inventiveness of the form.

Still, the form is very much the thing. And even when Loving Vincent sinks into long dialogues and black-and-white flashbacks, as Roulin attempts to disentangle the myth(s) of Vincent van Gogh, the animation itself entrances. Having never sold a painting in his lifetime, and living off the generosity of Theo, van Gogh's posthumous legacy has, by now, hardened into chintzy cliché (prints, postcards, "starry night" beach towels, etc.). Although the moving paintings animating Loving Vincent are, in some basic respect, themselves reproductions, they nonetheless make van Gogh's work feel vital – restoring something of that intangible aura which, wrote German philosopher Walter Benjamin, "withers in the age of mechanical reproduction."

Loving Vincent is bold, particularly in the face of contemporary computer animation, which for all its technical gloss feels drained of artistry, to say nothing of aura. Instead of algorithms animating smirking donkeys or goofball jellybean-shaped Minions, real people are slaving over canvases to bring the world of an old master back to life. Are these fleets of oil painters – following lines prescribed by the actors, and by van Gogh's style itself – any more artists than the rows of hunched programmers typing up the new Pixar feature? Is this laborious process any less alienated than dissolving artistic ambition into a string of computer code? The answer to both these questions is: yes. Loving Vincent doesn't just replicate or paint over art. It is art.

Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman's artistic ambition is matched by the laborious scope of their undertaking. In its conceit, and its very unfolding, Loving Vincent is a rapturously realized passion project that teeters, fittingly, somewhere between zealous enthusiasm and lunacy.

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