Loving Vincent is the first feature film made up entirely of paintings.
That’s right. Each frame of the film is a painting, in the style of Vincent van Gogh, and, unless this group of storytellers decides to do something like this again, we might not ever see another film like it.
That approach genuinely offers the film something special. Each frame is a mesmerizing piece of art, a wondrous visual delight that captivates as intensely as van Gogh paintings do in a museum and allows us to marvel at the craftsmanship behind the film. The flow between frames is a transfixing dance of color that highlights faces, enriches landscapes and renders any sort of movement magical. And to see, in many instances, famous van Gogh paintings integrated into the visuals of the film is a treat for those familiar with the painter.
Loving Vincent is beautiful in the deepest sense of the word.
Thankfully, that’s because the film isn’t simply a gimmick. In surprising fashion, the film actually functions fascinatingly on a structural level. The story picks up after the death of van Gogh as Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) ventures out to deliver a letter written by Vincent (Robert Gulaczyk) to his brother. On the way, Roulin stops by many people that interacted with van Gogh during his life. And the story ingeniously allows each person’s tale of van Gogh to be drastically different. Through all of these tales, Roulin becomes obsessed with the death of van Gogh and the possibility that van Gogh didn’t commit suicide, but was actually murdered. Roulin commits himself, in his eyes, to doing right by van Gogh.
At first, the structure masquerades as an almost detective-led murder mystery narrative. But as the film goes on and the terribly sad details of van Gogh’s mental struggles are slowly revealed, it becomes clear that this film is about mental health and how everyone else might perceive someone struggling with depression. There are those that barely knew him, interpreting his reserved nature as rude coldness. There are those that saw him from afar, admiring his quietude and skill. And there are those that were close to him, that understood what he was going through, but still failed to help him even when they tried.
Like van Gogh’s paintings, Loving Vincent is a film that belongs to impressionism both in its style and its structure, not just for the sake of it, but to carefully construct an impression of mental health and how we, the voyeurs, are in no way authorities on who that struggling person is at heart.
The structure may not be perfectly edited — the first half hour is rather slow — and some of the dialogue feels a bit too novelistic in its exposition. But as the film builds, the pace smoothes out and the thematic work, of crafting empathy in the viewer and forcing the viewer to constantly confront the assumptions of the voyeurs so as not to be another one of them, resonates deeply and profoundly. When it comes down to it, the style of the film mirroring van Gogh’s style forces us to see the film through his eyes and, thus, digest the narrative on his terms.
On a curious final note, Loving Vincent, which shot live action footage of actors (one of them being Saoirse Ronan) before painting over it, feels like, perhaps, a new type of performance capture. The emotion seen in close-ups is spellbinding, and likely wouldn’t be there had the film not based paintings in real actors. The film might be groundbreaking in that regard.
Featured image via BreakThru Films/Trademark Films.