Once in a while a film comes along that is so original, it almost defies definition. This Polish-UK collaboration, is one such film. Billed as the first ‘fully-painted’ feature, it represents ten years’ work by more than one hundred artists. Shot conventionally at first, with a cast of distinguished actors, all chosen for their similarities to characters in Van Gogh’s art, each frame (and there are 165,000 of them) has then been painstakingly overpainted with oils. The result is that the screen seems to writhe and flicker with vibrant colours, the technique plunging the viewer headlong into the artist’s idiosyncratic world. At first, the effect is dazzling, almost overpowering, but once you settle into it, you begin to take notice of the story, which is presented rather like a detective mystery. Did the famous artist really commit suicide? Was he murdered? Or was he the victim of a childish prank gone wrong?
It’s a year since Van Gogh’s death and Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), the son of Vincent’s close friend, Postman Joseph (Chris O Dowd) is charged with the thankless task of delivering the artist’s final letter to his brother, Theo. Armand reluctantly heads off to Paris where he talks to Pere Tanguy (John Sessions), who tells him that the letter cannot be delivered, as Theo too, is dead. He also assures Armand that Vincent was happy in the days leading up to his death and would never have dreamed of killing himself. Intrigued by this information, Armand heads for Auvers Sur Oise, the little town where Vincent spent his last days, and starts looking for answers. But it seems everyone he talks to has a different opinion about what might have happened to him…
There’s no doubting the care and attention to detail that filmmakers Dorieta Kobiela and Hugh Welchman have lavished on Loving Vincent – and it’s amazing to note, that no matter how manipulated the film images are, the actors are always identifiable as themselves, even whilst looking exactly like their portrait counterparts. Jerome Flynn who plays Doctor Gachet is a particularly good example of this. The scene where we first meet him is like watching a famous painting come to life. I particularly like the regular monochrome flashbacks, where a more photorealistic technique is employed, which offers a welcome break from the barrage of multi-coloured visual fireworks. Lovers of Van Gogh’s work will have an absolute field day here spotting all the references to his most famous paintings (there are 120 of them) and though the various theories surrounding the artist’s death are nothing new in themselves, it’s interesting to have them presented for consideration in this way. It’s good too that we are left to make up our own minds about which particular theory to believe.
Does this work as a movie? Yes, I think so, but it certainly won’t appeal to everyone. If you don’t care for the artist’s work, this certainly isn’t going to float your boat. Loving Vincent has a limited release across the UK and may end up finding its biggest audiences on the small screen, but if you do get the chance to see it in a movie theatre, then go and immerse yourself in Vincent’s world. It really is quite an experience.