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Having premiered as part of the London Film Festival, Film Editor Charlie Gearon reviews Loving Vincent – the word’s first fully painted feature film

The history of cinema has been pockmarked by innovations in animation. From the inclusion of synchronised sound in Disney’s Steamboat Willy (1927), to Toy Story (1995) being the first fully computer animated feature length film, there have been a finite number of moments which can be pointed to as heralding permanent and dramatic change to the landscape of animated film. Loving Vincent seems to be another such moment.

Loving Vincent holds the title of being the world’s first fully painted animated film. It follows the events immediately following Vincent van Gogh’s suicide, making use of over 60,000 hand painted frames created in collaboration by over 120 artists.

The art style mirrors the post-impressionistic style of van Gogh himself and ingeniously works a number of his paintings into the narrative. ‘Café at Night’, ‘Marguerite Gachet at the Piano’, ‘Starry Night’, ‘The Boatman’, the Roulin portraits, and dozens of other works which I undoubtedly missed are all alluded to. An art historian could doubtless have a field day pouring over every last subtle reference and allusion to van Gogh’s paintings.

Marguerite Gachet as portrayed by Saoirse Ronan

The amount of detail and care taken with the animation is painstakingly beautiful. Clouds drift across the sky in the background, shadows climb out behind the action and hair blows in the wind. Not a single corner has been cut, with every last frame betraying the patience and love with which the animators created Loving Vincent.

The flashback episodes which predominantly take place in the days leading up to van Gogh’s death are painted in black and white, and in a more photorealistic style. This provides a welcome contrast to the impressionistic vibrancy of the rest of the film, while remaining equally as beautiful.

Towards the start of the film, these black and white sections seem to be somewhat lacking in narrative strength. They make use of voiceover from a number of characters, each explaining a memory they have of Vincent while black and white footage of the incident plays out on screen. Initially, these seem fairly heavy-handed, attempting to simply tell the audience what to think of Vincent through explicit explanations of his character.

An example of the black and white style of animation

As the film progresses, however, the point of these interludes becomes more apparent and begins to make more sense as a narrative device. The audience is gradually exposed to a collection of differing and disparate opinions about Vincent, both positive and negative, offered by different inhabitants of Auvers who had the chance to meet him.

Holes begin to crop up in these stories, and constant inconsistencies hint at the unreliability of almost every character who claims to know something about the tragic fate of Mr. van Gogh. The audience is left scratching their head along with the film’s protagonist, Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), while they attempt to piece together an accurate depiction of Vincent the man, and of the events which led to his untimely death.

This allows the film to avoid an overly romanticised depiction of the tortured artist archetype which van Gogh and other artists like him are so often reduced to. The film’s concluding scenes heavily stress how Vincent cannot be simply understood with reference to his depressive states, nor to any other single trait; he was a human being, with all the misery, joy and complexity that constitutes every individual human life.

The film rather fittingly finishes with Armand Roulin and his father Joseph (Chris O’Dowd) sitting on the water beneath a star filled sky. Joseph likens Vincent and his work to the majesty of the heavens: beautiful to see, but impossible to fully grasp. It’s a poignant moment which neatly condenses the broader message which the film attempts to communicate: that human life, be it the life of an artist or of anyone else, is infinitely complex and infinitely beautiful.

Loving Vincent is at cinemas now


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