The term “movie” is short for moving pictures, referring to the concept of how films are experienced.
Videos are nothing more than a collection of pictures, projected at a speed fast enough to create the illusion of movement.
While this common, but essential aspect of film will go unnoticed, the movie Loving Vincent puts every frame of its narrative in the spotlight due to its unique construction.
This is the first feature length film to be made entirely of paintings done by hand. Each frame in the film is painted in the style of Vincent Van Gogh, whose life and death are the focal points of the narrative.
In the film, a young man is handed a letter by his father, a postman. The letter was written by Van Gogh, who had since died. Postman Roulin charges his son, Armand, with the responsibility of delivering this missive to the painter’s brother, setting Armand off on a quest searching for the recipient. He also seeks to understand Van Gogh’s life and the mysterious cause of his death.
The film and its marketing are heavily focused on the paintings that make up the visual storytelling, and for good reason. The opening credits are filled with beautiful swirling strokes, punctuated by tinkling music, before moving into the world of the paintings.
Building off of Van Gogh’s oeuvre, the film creates shots that move in the patterns of the Dutch painter’s signature style. Similar to how the “Starry Night” became a physical place with depth, it is the movement within the film which dazzles each pan. The crane-style shot feels alive as the brush strokes move in and out of view.
Movement is also a way of telling time. The film jumps between the present and the past, as the search for the letter recipient reveals a great deal of Van Gogh’s life story.
The man’s history is mostly told in black and white, visually flickering like the light of an old projected film. While the present time wiggles and swirls, the past has more stable visuals, as if the painter’s death has fragmented the world.
Van Gogh’s influence pervades even further. His appearance is echoed in those of some characters, through a straw hat, through red locks of hair or a familiar beard. Everybody is concerned with being an authority on the misunderstood or demented painter, depending on the perspective.
When Armand Roulin comes to the town in which the legendary man became a distinct figure, residents give over their own accounts of the man’s life, each slightly skewed.
Viewers must attempt to piece together a character from the scraps each narrator offers, from the complex character studies to the simple description of “the Dutch guy that shot himself.”
Even if the style is something of a gimmick, its story fits well. For the historically misunderstood man who is claimed to have only sold a single painting in his lifetime, the story is one of trying to get a grasp of his mystery.
The title, Loving Vincent, is a sign-off the painter would use in letters, but is also the aim of the film. By the end of it, the initially reluctant Roulin has fallen in love with Van Gogh, troubled as the painter may have been, and the film hopes to achieve that goal in its viewers as well.
Loving Vincent works through a range of emotions in its journey to tell the man’s life. In a simple statement, there is the tragic declaration that “there was another Vincent.” Van Gogh’s mother had a stillborn child and the painter lived in the shadow of its unborn potential.
In the man’s adult life, he is tormented and abused. His external tormentors throw objects at him and verbally abuse him. Internally, he deals with depression and worries about being a burden.
There is also joy, infective and delightful. The man works consistently, going out into the fields and observing life in wheat and rivers. He spies an animal and does not “seem to care that it ran off with his lunch.” His delight for life and wish to express it in his beautiful style is amplified by that very style telling his stories, showing a quest to discover himself.
The greatest parts of the film are the simplest aspects. It is in the elements that a serene beauty can be found. Wind blowing through a scene, flickering flames and rippling water are all absolutely stunning.
The film excels when it takes its source material and puts it into the medium of the movie, breathing life into the paint.
Maybe the most important element of this movie is the degree of care its creators had for its source material.
Every character in the film is somebody Van Gogh painted and the credits show that, with photographs of the actors joined next to the film versions and the original painting in which the person appeared.
Everything feels like something meticulously studied and purposefully executed.
Painting will most likely not become the new form of filmmaking, as the seven years of painstaking effort and 65,000 frames of painted film are not something easy to come by.
The work is clearly a labor of love, and for that it must be commended. It shows a way into trying to understand a person, beyond expectations and with an appreciation for the imperfect. It must be seen for its unique, beautiful style and for its care.