I’m a huge fan of Pixar but it’s almost ridiculous how much their CGI 'look' has come to influence that of practically every animated movie that comes out each year. One has to search far and wide to find animation that doesn’t have that gleaming computer-generated look or overtly cartoony style that the wizards at Pixar have perfected. Where is the stop motion photography, the mixed media, or the hand-drawn cells? Well, one animated contender this year forges a different path and it just might give Pixar a run for the animation Oscar come March. It’s LOVING VINCENT, a new film that just opened nationwide, and it is a glorious portrait of the life and death of impressionistic painter Vincent van Gogh.
And what an impression this film makes. For my money, it is one of the most enthralling entertainments of 2017. It not only is a splendid visual feast, animated with 65,000 hand-painted cells done in the style of Van Gogh’s painterly brush strokes, but it’s also an intensely moving biopic about one of history's most important geniuses. It even serves as a compelling mystery as the narrative here delves into unanswered questions surrounding his suicide.
Written and directed by Dorota Kobeila and Hugh Welchman, their achievement stands as both gorgeous and haunting. Sure it's novel to have each and every frame rendered in the style of the artist’s brush strokes, but it's even more clever to imbue every moment of the movie with the same sense of melancholy found on Van Gogh's canvases. It’s as if Van Gogh himself composed each scene, and indeed, many of the film's shots are taken directly from his paintings and portraits. The famous interiors, lush fields, and Paris cityscapes - they're are all here, as are many of the studies he did of friends and colleagues.
Still, one gets used to the novelty of animation after about 10 minutes or so, and after that, all the stunningly rendered animation in the world cannot save a subpar script. Fortunately, that is never an issue here. It has ornate and intricately realized visuals, but its story is what really draws your attention.
The film essentially plays out like a police procedural, as the evidence of the painter’s last weeks are gone over by a ‘detective’, in this case, a family friend named Armand Roulin. To discover more about the painter's death, Roulin travels throughout France, interviewing those who were in the artist's inner circle.
His interviewees are portrayed by a number of acclaimed British actors who were first filmed on video. Then their scenes were painted over in a technique called rotoscoping which traces over that footage, frame-by-frame, turning the live action into animation. It's a style that manages to gives the film an uncanny sense of realism even though it's all painted so stylistically.
Amongst the tony cast playing those in Van Gogh’s inner circle are Douglas Booth as Roulin, Chris O’Dowd as his father Joseph Roulin, Jerome Flynn as Dr. Gachet, Saoirse Ronan as Marguerite Gachet, Eleanor Tomlinson as Adeline Ravoux, and best of all, veteran character actor John Sessions as Pere Tanguy. Sessions is tasked with spouting a ton of exposition about Van Gogh's backstory, motivation, and personal foibles, but the shrewd talent manages to do all of it and sound entirely spontaneous.
Ronan, so incredibly winning in her starring role as director Greta Gerwig’s LADY BIRD this month, manages to do similarly sublime work here in her intense role as one of Van Gogh’s muses. And Tomlinson brings a warmth and humor to her role as a young caretaker of Van Gogh, stymied by both the man's talent, as well as his self-destructiveness.
For those unfamiliar with Van Gogh, the movie checks all the important boxes one needs to know from his biography, including his floundering inability to please his mother, as well as his famous and tortured friendship with fellow painter Paul Gauguin. Frankly, Gauguin is the one character that the movie could have included even more of, but it's a small flaw, especially considering so many other colorful characters are brought to brilliant life in LOVING VINCENT.
As for those viewers who are exceedingly familiar with the biography of Van Gogh, the movie will play like a treasure trove of Easter eggs. Kobeila and Welchman reference dozens of Van Gogh’s paintings, and during the end credits, the filmmakers cheekily juxtapose Van Gogh's actual portraits next to stills of the cast as they were rendered in the movie. It serves as a stunning curtain call for the actors, as well as those artists who rendered the characters so faithfully to Van Gogh's impressions of them.
The film's music by Clint Mansell is award-worthy as it serves to both utterly stir and insidiously haunt, and when the filmmakers bring in Don McLean’s “Starry, Starry Night” to play over the end credits, it is impossible not to be moved to tears. Van Gogh truly was a light in the world, changing art with his passionate expressionism, yet the poor bastard was never appreciated in his time. He gave so much and deserved so much better than he got. If there is any justice in the world today, this expression of him will reach a wide audience and perhaps introduce a few newer generation to the man's artistry and importance.
And wouldn't it be great to see LOVING VINCENT make Best Animated Feature a real contest for once? Sure, Pixar will likely prevail with their clever and gorgeous entry COCO, but here’s hoping that March 4th is a starry, starry night for you-know-who.