Friday, 20 October 2017

An Absolute Masterpiece

This feat of artistic endeavour has been entirely ‘painted’ in the style of Vincent van Gogh

Written by Jason Solomons
A quite extraordinary co-production between artist and animator couple Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, Loving Vincent is billed as the ‘world’s first fully painted feature film’. What does that mean, though? ‘Wallace and Gromit, with paintings instead of stop-motion clay models,’ is how Welchman simply and rather modestly describes it. Technically, it was shot with actors, often on a green screen, then a picture of each frame was hand-painted on a canvas by 115 artists working in oils in van Gogh’s style to create more than 65,000 paintings which were filmed – 12 per second – to animate the tableaux of Loving Vincent.

Over 77 of his known works are incorporated into the film, miraculously springing to life, the characters in them talking and walking, the trees swaying. The plot – which is bound to play second fiddle to the technical marvel – is meticulously researched yet nevertheless a fiction, concerning Armand Roulin (played by Douglas Booth), son of the local postmaster in Auvers-sur-Oise, sent on a mission a year after Vincent’s apparent suicide to deliver one of Vincent’s final letters to his brother, the art dealer Theo, also now dead.

In trying to get the letter to its rightful destination, Armand turns detective, tracing Vincent’s steps to the people he knew and painted. Armand begins to suspect his death might not have been suicide.

The filmmakers use van Gogh’s famous – and less well-known – paintings as clues, and base the script, sometimes verbatim, on testimonies, statements and also Vincent’s own letters, which he often signed: Your loving Vincent. The voices and performances come over a bit like a radio play, the dialogue sometimes awkwardly stilted, like a bad translation, but you soon get accustomed to it and it matches the visual flow. Certain actors handle the style better than others.

Loving Vincent is an exercise in both pioneering technique and huge ambition, along with no little fan worship. But it’s also jolly clever and visually beautiful, the paintings slithering and twinkling, writhing with little swirls of larvae-like impasto. It’s almost like seeing the world how Vincent himself must have in those frenetically productive eight years of work between picking up the paintbrush and his deathbed.

You’ll recognise some of the paintings and their characters, such as Jerome Flynn’s Dr Gachet, The Wheat Fields, The Bedroom and The Chair, the Portrait of Mademoiselle Ravoux (superbly played by Eleanor Tomlinson) and, of course, the Starry, Starry Nights. John Sessions and Helen McCrory appear, briefly but impressively. There’s even a lovely new version of the Don McLean track Vincent (‘Starry, starry night, Paint your palette blue and grey, Look out on a summer’s day,’ and all that) sung soulfully by Lianne la Havas over the end credits, which are also brimming with extra information.

Through Welchman’s ground- breaking animation, the paintings take on a throbbing, breathing life of their own, and so too does the ever-fascinating, painfully sad story of van Gogh’s own life and death. You have to see it to believe it, and I recommend that you do.

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