Pihla Pekkarinen takes a look at the first entirely oil painted film in cinematic history.
The hypnotic quality of the moving brushstrokes mesmerises from the opening credits of the film. It bears resemblance to an optical illusion, the circular motion of the short signature strokes of Vincent Van Gogh. It has been obvious since the trailer – this film is like nothing you have seen before.
Loving Vincent is the world’s first film to be entirely oil painted. It is composed of 65,000 individual frames painted by over 100 artists. The plot takes place one year after Van Gogh’s death, and follows his friend Armand Roulin as he tries to uncover what drove Van Gogh to shoot himself apparently out of nowhere. The scenes were originally shot with actors on rudimentary sets to capture the movement, and the frames then replicated by skilled oil painters mimicking the style of Van Gogh. The film is a passion project, the result of over six years of teamwork, and it shows.
Loving Vincent is based around animated versions 95 of Van Gogh’s paintings, but is still constructed like a film, frame by frame. It is not a traditional animated movie. At times, the film is tough to follow, as it must adjust you to the language of brushstrokes in place of CGI. But it is worth the effort. Each character is an artful and unique blend of Van Gogh’s artwork and the actors’ facial features, avoiding the generic look characters in animated films often share. While the shifts in painting style through the film are occasionally abrupt and sometimes awkward, the frames stay true to the paintings they draw from. Douglas Booth, playing Armand Roulin, summarizes it best: “Sometimes you lose the artist in a biopic of the artist. This was telling his story through his art.” Loving Vincent is a homage not only to Van Gogh’s life and person, but to his artistic endeavours.
If you are looking for a condensed version of Van Gogh’s Wikipedia article, you won’t find it here. For a Van Gogh film, there is shockingly little of Vincent present. He appears in black-and-white flashbacks, a mostly mute character alive only in the memories of the film’s main personas. Instead the film zeroes in on the postmortem memory of Van Gogh. A feeling of uncertainty is ever present in the background: each character paints us a new portrait of the mad artist, and this many-sided construction of him might leave the audience perplexed. Carefully and cleverly, Loving Vincent gives us an idea of what Van Gogh was like without really telling us anything about him. We learn about his life, about his friends and family, and about the circumstances surrounding his death, but Van Gogh himself remains a mystery.
The hole of Van Gogh’s presence is filled by the charming character of Armand Roulin. He opens the film as an impertinent young man, the kind we have seen on screen a thousand times before, refusing to oblige to his father’s requests and erupting in a temper tantrum in the middle of a pub. But Booth’s earnestness as Roulin and his love for Vincent are, surprisingly, more than enough to drive the film. His implied romance with the innkeeper’s daughter is charming; his argument with her is upsetting; and his desperate need to find out the truth about Van Gogh’s death is shared with the audience. Overall, Douglas Booth does a stellar job in carrying the arc of the story.
Because it is the first film of its kind, it is difficult to assess the success of Loving Vincent. But if the aim is to tell a compelling and moving story about the darkest days of Vincent Van Gogh’s life, it would be tough to argue against the film’s success in doing so. It retains its focus, and explores the death of Van Gogh fully and completely, creating an atmosphere of intimacy through its narrow scope. And despite its occasionally gimicky exterior, Loving Vincent is, at its core, a story about companionship, misunderstanding, and regret, told in an elegant manner well worth the wait.
Loving Vincent is out now in UK cinemas. Trailer below: