A Motion Oil Painting

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Title: Loving Vincent

Rating: 5 Stars

This is the story of Van Gogh’s last days. The story is set a year after his death. It’s framed around a letter to Theo (Vincent’s brother) from Vincent. A post master, who knew Vincent, has the letter and gives it to his son (Armand) to deliver to Theo. Theo, unfortunately, is already dead. Therefore, the son talks to various people, trying to understand Vincent’s last days, in order to determine who should receive the letter.

That’s the basic plot. What makes this somewhat interesting is the fact that this is an animated film. What makes it unique is that the animation was not done using computers or even accomplished using old school drawing cels. It was all done using oil paintings. Yes, each frame of the film is an oil painting. The film consisted of 853 shots and 65,000 frames. To represent movement in each shot, paint was scrapped off and then added in. Over 100 artists were involved in this project.

This gives the film a feel like no other film I’ve ever seen. There are basically two styles of painting here. Those that represents the postman’s son as he talks to people who knew Vincent, are painted in Van Gogh’s style. In fact, many of the scenes are based off Van Gogh’s most famous paintings (eg Portrait of Dr Gachet, Marguerite Gachet at the Piano, Bank of the Oise at Auvers). They are alive with color with thick brush strokes.

The second style is the flashback scenes to when Vincent was still alive. They are painted in black and white and are nearly photo realistic.

I found the film surprisingly engrossing. Armand talks to many people that knew Vincent. He talks to the innkeeper’s daughter where he stayed. He talks to Dr Gachet and his daughter. He talks to the local boatman.

From this, he attempts to derive the truth of Van Gogh’s death. Did he kill himself because of love for Dr Gachet’s daughter? Did he kill himself because he knew he was a burden to his brother Theo? Did he even kill himself? Some young men from the village were known to harass him and one was known to even have a gun. Not surprising, the mystery is not resolved by the end. Different people that Armand interviewed had completely different impressions of Van Gogh and his last days. However, by the end of the film, Armand has some deeper understanding of Van Gogh and the relationships that he had.

Although I did really enjoy the story, clearly it was the art work that was mesmerizing. As you can probably imagine, showing motion is a challenge when you’re painting a series of oil paintings. At times, the film makers allowed you to see the work. As a character moved (ie was scrapped off and then re-painted) you could see the tracks of movement across the canvas. In cases where there were many characters (as in a bar scene, for instance) there would be moments where you could see a background character freeze. In particular, there was a scene that involved a fight. Watching the complexity of a fight unfold as a series of oil painting movements was fascinating.

Considering the limited form of movement ultimately that oil painting provides, there was by necessity a lot of exposition. Normally, that would have bothered me, but as I was listening I was swept up by the art on the screen, so I did not find it distracting.

Considering that impressionism, at its root, was about bringing a level of true realism (what the eye actually sees) to painting, it was an interesting approach to filming Van Gogh’s last days.

Maybe we were actually seeing the world as Van Gogh actually saw it?

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