Each of the 65,000 frames of “Loving Vincent,” opening this weekend to already sold-out screenings at Speed Cinema, is absolutely gorgeous, which you’d expect from a film that takes its visual template from the works of Dutch post-impressionist master Vincent van Gogh.
A team of 100 artists hand-painted in oil over filmed footage of “Loving Vincent,” simulating the bold use of color and dramatic brushstrokes typical in van Gogh’s own canvases.
(The process is broadly labeled “rotoscoping,” and in various forms dates back to the trippy ’70s films of Ralph Bakshi. Producers trumpet “Loving Vincent” as the first film to be entirely hand-painted.)
Filmmakers Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman build the film around lavish establishing shots that mimic the composition of the painter’s most notable city and landscapes of southern France, where he spent the last years of his life.
It’s as though the viewer is watching a van Gogh come to life — characters move through the scenery in a slight bubble of color, and each frame implies light and motion in the variation of brushstroke, as van Gogh did in “The Harvest” and “Wheat Field with a Lark.”
It’s just implausibly beautiful to look at.
“There are just so many beautiful scenes, asking you to name a favorite is like asking you to pick a favorite child,” said Dean Otto, curator of film at Speed Art Museum. “The sequences are just breathtaking — this is an incredible accomplishment, not just artistically but technically with the enormous amount of effort that went into the animation.”
For the record, this writer’s favorite sequence is based on van Gogh’s “Café Terrace at Night” — what happens in the scene really doesn’t matter. Just look at it in the image below.
“Loving Vincent” already has become the highest-grossing film in the one-and-a-half-year history of Speed Cinema, selling 1,900 tickets as of last Friday. The screenings this weekend sold out quickly, and Speed added more screenings for the first week of November as well as 10 additional screenings Nov. 10-26.
The Saturday showings set for Nov. 4 have also sold out, so ordering tickets online is well-advised.
Otto said the film has enjoyed enormously positive word of mouth and is drawing large crowds nationwide, particularly at museums or other multi-media art centers where interest in van Gogh’s work and life is already high.
It’s a cliché, but this film absolutely needs to be viewed on a large screen to appreciate its full visual impact. Which, candidly, is its lone exceptional merit.
The narrative, such as it is, revolves around a young man’s interviews with people who knew van Gogh in the months leading up to his 1890 death in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, broadly accepted to be a suicide following years of depressive behavior.
Kobiela and Welchman instead pursue a modern theory that van Gogh’s death was the result of an accidental shooting, fueled by drinking and bullying of the eccentric artist.
Much of the script is devoted to belabored exposition and flashbacks. Eleanor Tomlinson as tavern maiden Adeline Ravoux gives the most notable performance, despite the odd decision to populate the Gallic countryside with characters who speak in accents straight from “My Fair Lady.”
All in all, the plot plays out as an unusually pedestrian episode of “Law and Order.” The film probably would have been better served to have simply followed van Gogh through his last days and left the Nancy Drew stuff alone.
But complaining about story construction in “Loving Vincent” is akin to griping about character development in “Fantasia.” It’s a lavish visual treat, and it’s well worth snapping up tickets if you get the chance.
Experimental animation has been a popular staple at the Speed, Otto said, with collections of award-nominated shorts and experimental documentaries drawing large crowds.
For those interested in other films with a unique approach to animation, we suggest the following:
The Breadwinner (2017)
Otto saw “The Breadwinner” at the Toronto Film Festival and predicts it will be nominated for an Academy Award after it is released next month. Created by the same team behind 2009’s “The Secret of Kells,” “The Breadwinner” tells the story of a young Afghani girl who disguises herself as a boy to help her family survive in their war-torn homeland.
The film, which Otto described as “gripping,” is set for broad release in the U.S., and so may well not be screening at the Speed, but Otto gives in a glowing endorsement all the same.
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Richard Linklater used interpolated rotoscoping, a computer-driven process, in this unusually faithful adaptation of a Phillip K. Dick novel. The visual effect is stunning but sometimes interferes with performances from the A-list cast, most notably Winona Ryder.
As with almost all Dick stories, “Scanner” deals with issues of identity, in this case the blurring lines for an undercover cop who has gone so deep into the drug culture that he can no longer discern which of his lives is “real.” The animation would probably have worked best here as an occasional special effect, as opposed to the full visual treatment, but it is still gorgeous.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)
This one gives “Loving Vincent” a run for its money in the gorgeous category and offers a lovely story as well. Japanese animation great Isao Takahata (“Grave of the Fireflies”) directed this interpretation of “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” a Buddhist folktale of the loss of desire. Exquisitely painted in watercolors, “Princess Kaguya” also is emotionally engaging and stands as one of the great accomplishments of Studio Ghibli. And that is saying something.
This story has been updated.