The historical drama Loving Vincent, concerning the life and death of Vincent van Gogh, is being billed as the world's first fully painted feature film. Indeed, each of the 65,000 frames in this movie was hand-painted by a small army of artists over the course of seven years, with the intention of bringing the paintings of van Gogh to life.
The outcome of all this effort is exceptionally vivid and beautiful. The film's animation technique essentially combines rotoscoping—painting on top of each film frame—with elements of form and style from van Gogh's most famous paintings. Van Gogh's bold brushstrokes of raw kinetic energy burst into the fourth dimension as his paintings somehow become genuine moving pictures.
Director-animators Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman deserve some kind of special industry recognition for what they've generated here. Like Richard Linklater's Boyhood, which was filmed over a period of ten years, Loving Vincent tinkers with the very mechanics of how time and space operate in the cinematic form.
The fantastic images need a story from which to hang, however, and this is where Vincent disappoints. Set a year or so after van Gogh's death, the film is structured like a detective story or police procedural. Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), an acquaintance of the great painter, becomes a reluctant amateur investigator after van Gogh's suicide.
Or was it a suicide? Roulin informally interviews a procession of friends and family, many of whom are the subjects of famous van Gogh portraits. The mystery story is too thin to support a feature-length film, and the conceit is finally too conspicuous. You might recognize a few familiar faces, though—is that Chris O'Dowd as the old postman? Why, yes it is!
I didn't buy into the story at all, but that's OK because it's not really required. This movie is a feast for the eyes, and I'd suggest seeing it on the big screen if you can. Visual-art nerds will want to watch for several masterful sequences where cinematographic flourishes are blended with classic portraiture technique. In one lovely composition, rain on a windowpane throws tears of shadow and light onto the face of our hero. That's an old film-school trick, but it becomes something entirely new when each frame of the scene is its own oil painting.
Loving Vincent may not have much of a story, but it's unlike anything else you're likely to see at the theaters this year. Double secret bonus tip: you might want to read up on van Gogh real quick first—especially the circumstances of his death—since the movie assumes a familiarity. It'll help make sense of things in the end.