*** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for mature thematic elements, some violence, sexual material, and smoking)
Released: November 3, 2017
Runtime: 94 minutes
Director: Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman
Starring: Douglas Booth, Chris O’Dowd, Saoirse Ronan, Jerome Flynn, Eleanor Tomlinson. John Sessions, Helen McCrory, James Greene, Bill Thomas, Robert Gulaczyk

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, then the vibrant portraits that compose every frame of Loving Vincent speak more volumes than the pedestrian whodunit they visualize.

In an impressive feat of painstaking artistry, every frame of Loving Vincent is hand-painted in the iconic style of its subject, Vincent Van Gogh. More of a breakthrough in patience than in animation technology, the film – shot first with actors in costumes, then edited together – uses the standard motion capture approach.

But instead of employing computer animation software, the post-production artists became literal artists, applying each stroke with real paintbrushes and paint, not digital ones. (See images below.)

The end result is an unparalleled visual achievement. The story structure, however, is far less ambitious.

After eight short years of unequaled artistic output in both quantity and quality, Vincent Van Gogh killed himself by a revolver shot to the chest. This tortured artist, who had previously cut off his right ear, completed 2,100 pieces of artwork in under a decade (a feverish pace), including 860 oil paintings, and most produced in the last two years of his life.

Yet despite his troubled history, Van Gogh’s apparent suicide has always been a bit of a puzzle. Various aspects of his life in the weeks leading up to his death never seemed to line up with a depressive spiral.

Loving Vincent explores this conundrum in a construct that begins one year after his death. Like an old school Agatha Christie mystery, the plot follows the journey of Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), the son of a postman who was a close friend of Vincent’s. The postman tasks Armand to hand deliver Van Gogh’s last letter to his brother Theo, as previous attempts to send it via mail have failed.

From this basis, the narrative unfolds as an investigation, with Armand serving as the de facto sleuth. He crosses paths with various people who knew Van Gogh during his final days (the last six weeks specifically), both personally and in fleeting encounters.

Their conversations are more like consensual interrogations, and the Van Gogh that collectively emerges is a contradictory one. These first-hand accounts are conflicting, often opposing. Some validate Vincent’s self-inflicted violent end while others defy it.

This all progresses in workmanlike fashion, requiring the images to do all of the heavy lifting of keeping our attention. Even as the cinematic canvas plays out like a motion picture version of an art gallery exhibit, the dramatization is little more than a basic cable-level History Channel recreation.

The scenes are over-written and overplayed, weighted with exposition and delivered in urgent whispers or suspicious import, despite a solid cast that includes the likes of Saoirse Ronan, Chris O’Dowd, and Game of ThronesJerome Flynn. We even have a detailed Zapruder-like forensic at one point, questioning if the gun shot could’ve been self-inflicted.

Suffice it to say, the animation aesthetic is inspired but the storytelling is not. Thankfully that visual virtue is a strong one. Painting aficionados in general and Van Gogh enthusiasts in particular (like me) will cherish the opportunity to see these masterworks writ large, especially in how directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman (the 2006 Animated Short Oscar winner for Peter & the Wolf) cleverly incorporate Van Gogh’s most seminal works, and bring their human subjects to life.

At a brisk ninety minutes, the formulaic true crime blueprint doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s serviceable enough to deliver a one-of-a-kind big screen experience, although perhaps more so for art lovers than strict cinephiles. Loving Vincent isn’t so much a movie as a MoMA roadshow. It’s a showcase for one of art’s defining modernists, and that’s more than enough reason to seek it out.

Click on any image for larger picture gallery.

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