Loving Vincent a Visual Delight

Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman
Good Deed Entertainment, 94 minutes, PG-13

Loving Vincent is an artistic triumph wrapped in a film that promises more than it delivers. If you've not heard, visually it's one of the most astonishing films since Peter Greenway's Prospero's Books (1991) and takes us well beyond the stop-motion animation of Richard Linklater's Waking Life (2001). Actors and backdrops were filmed and then a team of artists—variously reported as 100 to 125—painstakingly hand-painted 65,000 frames. The wow factor doesn't end there, as the film's namesake subject is Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90) and the directors, editors, and art department proceed to bring his paintings to life. If you know Van Gogh's famed portraits of postman Joseph Roulin, imagine the thrill of having him lean into the green table to his left and begin a conversation. Now imagine that other characters also come to life and make their way through dynamic moving tableaux. Chances are good you'll see some your favorite Van Gogh images, given that he produced an astonishing 800 paintings in his brief life. The overall effect is as if hand-drawn anime courted and married high art.

The challenge, though, is to make all of this into a coherent narrative rather than a clever flipbook. On that score, Loving Vincent is more mundane. The visuals are stitched together by supposing that in 1891, one year after Vincent's death, Postmaster Roulin (Chris O'Dowd) comes into the possession of a letter from Vincent (Robert Gulaczyk) addressed to his brother Theo. Problem: Theo died just six months after his brother, so to whom should the letter be delivered? Roulin's first thought is to place it in the hands of his last caregiver, Dr. Paul Gatchet (Jerome Flynn) who treated Vincent after he left the lunatic asylum in Saint-Rémy, and Roulin entrusts his dilettante son Armand (Douglas Booth) with traveling to Auveres-sur-Oise to give Gatchet the letter. You know Armand too—he's the cocksure popinjay in the bright yellow jacket and louche hat who was also a favored Van Gogh subject. Armand arrives to a land of gossip, innuendo, jealousy, and simmering rivalries that raise doubts about Vincent's suicide. What if something more sinister occurred? In his investigations, Armand encounters figures you can also find in a quick Google Images search: a boatman (Adam Turner), an innkeeper's daughter (Eleanor Thompson), art supplier Pere Tanguay (John Sessions), police lieutenant Milliet (Robin Hedges), Doctor Gatchet's daughter Marguerite (Saorise Ronan), and others.

It's an intriguing idea—except none of this really happened and the contrivance is stretched, even at just 94 minutes. Thus the film's reveal seems more like surrender than a conclusion. This is a British/Polish coproduction and at times it feels uncertain in ways that go beyond the fact that the actor's accents jar the narrative—Irish, various parts of England, Central Europe…. I suppose we can we thankful that none tried to pass as faux French, but the lack of any sort of lingua franca doesn't help engross us in an already a thin mystery.

That said, this movie is such a dazzling artistic achievement that you should see it even if the accents make you want to take a straight razor to an ear. The frenetic and constant movement of the lush imagery assures that you cannot be bored, plus there's the pleasure of seeing how many Van Gogh paintings you can identify. Loving Vincent is so creative that I am willing to forgive everything except what was done to Don McLean's song "Starry Starry Night." Instead of rolling the credits to McLean's masterful original, we get a lame cover from generic British pop/soul artist Lianne La Havas. Good grief! That's like putting vinyl siding on the Terrace Café.  

Rob Weir 

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