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Loving Vincent (2017)

Being one of the most famous painters the world has ever known, it is easy to forget that the life of Vincent van Gogh was a troubled one. His erratic behavior, including cutting off his own ear, and the reasoning behind his suicide has always been shrouded in mystery. He was a man who was both ridiculed and respected among a number of his peers. One such man, Vincent's postman Joseph Roulin, has come into possession of one of Vincent's final letters to his brother Theo. Unable to deliver it himself, Joseph tasks his son Armand Roulin to track down Vincent's brother and deliver the letter. What begins as a reluctant delivery job becomes an unraveling mystery as Armand pieces together the events leading up to Vincent's suicide. Is there more to this story than what appears on the surface? What kind of man was Vincent van Gogh, up until the very end?

Loving Vincent is a hand painted animated biopic/mystery film. The film was co-directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, who sought to tell Vincent Van Gogh's story through the artist's iconic style. The film was co-produced by BreakThru Productions and Trademark Films and funded by the Polish Film Institute.

Over 100 painters were brought onto the project and were taught the fundamentals of animation that would be used for the film. The method, as described by co-director Hugh Welchman, takes quite a few cues from stop-motion animation techniques. The film's painting design team spent a year re-imagining how Vicent's paintings could be incorporated into the film. The paintings, combined with the storyboard acted as the set up for the live-action scenes. The live actors would perform their roles on constructed sets or in front of a green screen. The recorded film was then combined with computer animation to incorporate elements of the setting and create a reference point for the painters. Each and every one of Loving Vincent's 65,000 frames were hand painted. The painters using the reference material they were given to capture the frame in Van Gogh's iconic style. Followed by recreating movement through every brush stroke. Once the frame was completed, a still shot would be taken of the completed frame. Allowing the artists to continue on and paint the following frame.

This process took 4 years to develop and 2 years to complete.

Going into this film, I had high expectations. Expectations born from the news and media surrounding Loving Vincent, including some the details written above. This information in addition to the trailer urged me to pick this film above a myriad of others to see as a part of the London Film Festival. I already knew it was going to be good, but I underestimated the level of honesty and integrity that I was about to witness. Not just in the narrative, but the artistic integrity.

A big part of what gives Loving Vincent its identity is its profound respect for its subject. The world-famous painter, Vincent Van Gogh. Respect that is communicated both through the course of Armand's journey to find the truth behind Vincent's suicide and every frame of the Van Gogh style animated scenes. Every scene in this style is an animated depiction of Van Gogh's famous or even lesser known works of art.

Keeping the film planted firmly in the world as Vincent van Gogh created through his work. At no point does the film try to presume, “what Vincent would do,” or “Vincent would have painted a scene like this.” by attempting to create scenes in this style that are unique only to the film. An incredible act of diligence on the part of the directors and artists for going the extra mile to stay true to Vincent Van Gogh's unique vision.

However, not all of Loving Vincent's story is told in this way. There are several sequences of animation (also hand painted) during flashbacks that are primarily black and white. According to co-director Hugh Welchman, who appeared after the film to do a short Q&A session with the audience, this was in part to give the film its detective noir feel and also give the film's visual style balance (so that audiences wouldn't get tired of eye-popping Van Gogh style animation). These scenes are distinctly more photorealistic as a result and are a welcome contrast to the Van Gogh visual style.

Though not nearly enough praise can be given to the artists/animators (most of which had never worked on animation before) for the work on display in Loving Vincent, a good deal of credit must also go to the film's actors as well. Douglas Booth as the hot-headed Armand does a wonderful job as the film's reluctant detective and audience surrogate. Even the characters he meets along the way, such passionate paint seller, Pere Tanguy (John Sessions), the Gachet's protective housekeeper Louise Chevalier (Helen McCrory) and the lively innkeeper's daughter Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tomlinson), all give wonderful performances. Pulling Armand, and the audience, into the film's major question.

“What type of man was Vincent van Gogh?”

A tortured artist? A nobody? A madman? A visionary?

Could he have been all of these things, or simply a person that defies conventional labels?

While the film asks the question, it doesn't really come out and tell the audience an answer. Because in reality, there isn't one. The film gives numerous accounts of people who knew Vincent. Their interactions with him, their opinions on his lifestyle and artwork. The film even dares to dip into the controversial theory of Vincent's suicide being a murder. This is not dwelled on for long because the film never tries to state that one point of view of events is inferior to another. Which, in my mind, is another mark of the filmmaker's respect for Vincent and the events surrounding his life.

That being said, in the grand scheme of things not much happens in Loving Vincent. Armand is tasked with taking a letter written by Vincent from his father. Armand reluctantly goes but finds he can't deliver the letter to its original recipient. He travels around to find someone to give it to. He finds them and delivers the letter, the end. Not a thrilling roller coaster ride of a movie by any stretch, but it is not meant to be. You could argue that more could have been done with the narrative but given the restraints with keeping to the chosen visual style, the slow-paced noir story makes for a decent story. Not perfect but builds on what the filmmakers set out to do.

According to the film's website

The reason we made the film is not because we want to be the first, or that we want to set any records, it is because we believe that you cannot truly tell Vincent's story without his paintings, so we need to bring his paintings to life.”

An ideal reflective of Vincent's own words.

"We cannot speak other than by our paintings"

Through artistic excellence, wonderful performances, and direction fueled by deference to the film's subject, Loving Vincent has made itself a down to earth yet a spectacular film. It surprised me, in spite of my high expectations, and warranted an 11-minute standing ovation at its Annecy premiere (on top of its award). If you are looking for an animated feature film with a mature narrative and a noir tone than Loving Vincent will not disappoint.

(Check the link for theaters & showtimes.
FROM Breakthru Productions & Trademark Films
1hr 34 mins

IN A NUTSHELL: A loving animated tribute of an astounding individual. 

Be sure to check out Loving Vincent's Website to find more info on the film's development process, the filmmakers, and interviews!