Art Smitten

Review: Loving Vincent


There’s a strange phenomena that occurs when you go to review something as intriguing and over-hyped as Loving Vincent. First, you are excited, so you mark your expectations up. Then, aware of your excitement, you mark them down again. Then, not wanting to seem like a hapless sheep bleating about how magnificent something is based on a glitzy first impression, you start scrutinising the piece religiously, not wanting to fall into the trap of being seen to like it. And then, finally, you grow conscious that you’re doing this and go back to being excited.

I’m not sure exactly what stage of that tortured analysis I was in when I eventually sat down and watched Loving Vincent, but what I can say is that it is a captivating piece of art that genuinely engages people of all tastes.

The premise of Loving Vincent centres around Vincent Van Gogh’s final weeks in 1896, and the strange, unexplored factors surrounding his alleged suicide – although, the film’s main drawcard is not its story, but its style. Across the entire hour-and-a-half, every single shot, every single frame, is a real oil painting. It’s a remarkable feat; over several months, hundreds of painters created nearly two hundred individual paintings, from which they re-sketched over 18,000 individual frames – all in Van Gogh’s signature style, of course. The amount of choreography, manpower and time that went into putting together this one film is staggering, and impressive in its own right.

And I am pleased to say that they pulled it off; the ‘moving painting’ effect really is nothing like I’ve ever seen in cinema before. Characters swirl and swim around a deep, colourful background; objects sprawl and disintegrate in and out of focus; characters move with a quick, watery gait; even the fixed environments themselves appear to vibrate, or flow like a river of hues. Some would say that this sensation is similar to animation, but I would contend that it has an even richer base than your average animation, with swirls and peaks of the dobs of paint, and even the occasional brush caught in frame, triggering a rush as hundreds of three-dimensional objects flash before your face. These are interspersed with black-and-white flashbacks taken off of real photographs, providing a nice change of pace from the straight-painted frames. Initially I was afraid it was going to be a gimmick, and it was, but what’s wrong with that? If a gimmick is pleasant or useful, why should we condemn it just for being a gimmick? Corn chips, Beethoven, and the internal combustion engine were all gimmicks once, and look how far they’ve come.

That said, the reason why I describe it as a gimmick, is because the other areas of the film aren’t quite as overstated as the art style. Which isn’t entirely a criticism; indeed, I actually quite like how laid back the story was, in a humble, unpretentious sort of way. Granted, there isn’t a lot of Van Gogh himself in Loving Vincent, but I respected the bold choice on the part of the writers, and appreciate them focussing on just one element. By telling the story through the perspective of a vigilante investigator into Vincent’s death, a protagonist so generic that I couldn’t even be bothered looking his name up on IMDb, was an effective way of tying all the loose ends together and introducing the minor characters. I’m not sure how real to life these people were, but they were certainly interesting, The bubbly hotel owner, the eccentric town hooligan and the friendly psychologist secretly jealous of Vincent’s artistic skill are all distinguishably memorable.

Something interesting happens with the tone, too. At first, it opens like a tribute to the painter, using his more famous pieces as the establishing shots, before morphing into a whodunnit at about the midpoint and then, when the doctor’s introduced, starts toying with the themes of mental illness breeding irrationality. It’s rather deftly handled, though, never collapsing into a dark, gritty noir, but not glazing over the facts, either. I do also want to say a special mention about the end, because I personally was delighted by the way the Loving Vincent ended, in that it was a fitting, brave and fairly unseen direction for a conclusion to take in modern cinema, but nevertheless, without meaning to spoil, I imagine there are going to be a lot of people that will really hate this ending.

What I admired most about Loving Vincent, though, is that it is an uncommon example of a film that had style with substance, rather than the other way around. Preliminarily, there are breathtaking, mouthwatering visuals that someone of any disposition can enjoy, which are subsequently enhanced by a warm, enduring tale with a lot of heart. Sure, the cinematography might be over the top, the story may ramble and the protagonist is as forgettable as they come, but  even so, I guarantee there will be something that will have you Loving Vincent.

Written by Andrew Kelso

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