Good Deed Entertainment. 2017. Animation. 97 Minutes.

2.5 Angels

Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, the new ani­mat­ed fea­ture film Loving Vincent” is many things at once: A crime of cin­e­mat­ic pas­sion, a dar­ing attempt at repli­cat­ing a famed artist’s vision­ary style in ani­mat­ed form, and a some­what plod­ding detec­tive sto­ry told in wheezy old nar­ra­tive tropes that vio­late an often rav­ish­ing technique.

Imagine a mod­est 1940s noir mur­der mys­tery hand paint­ed by Vincent Van Gogh, and then stop imag­in­ing, because that’s basi­cal­ly what you get. According to its mak­ers, this is the first fea­ture film entire­ly hand-​painted in oils — some 65,000 can­vas­es, cre­at­ed by a team of 115 artists, all work­ing in Van Gogh’s style.

Every noir needs a cadav­er or two, and Loving Vincent is no excep­tion. The corpse under inves­ti­ga­tion belongs to Van Gogh him­self, who left behind a let­ter when he died which Armand Roulin (played by Douglas Booth, look­ing dis­tract­ing­ly like a sketch of Johnny Depp in Ed Wood) is hon­or bound to deliv­er. Armand becomes grad­u­al­ly obsessed by the man­ner of Van Gogh’s death. He begins to inter­view Van Gogh’s last known asso­ciates, includ­ing a squan­dered Saoirse Riordan as Margueritte Gachet, Van Gogh’s pos­si­ble love inter­est. What Armand uncov­ers shakes his belief in the offi­cial sto­ry – and is sup­posed to shake ours.

The what if?” in this who­dunit is based on rumors that Van Gogh was actu­al­ly mur­dered (or acci­den­tal­ly shot by pranksters) rather than famous­ly sui­cid­ing in that wheat field at Auvers. A wit­ty touch in a script oth­er­wise eschew­ing humor is that most of the main char­ac­ters are peo­ple Van Gogh paint­ed, includ­ing his ther­a­pist, his mail­man, the sup­pli­er of his paints, his innkeep­er and on and on. This would appear to be the peg on which the use of Van Gogh’s visu­al style hangs, albeit shak­i­ly. His tremu­lous, pul­sat­ing sur­re­al­ism would have died with him, and it’s odd­ly mat­ed to the kind of mun­dane, expository
con­ver­sa­tions found in TV police procedurals.

Like Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and Tower, Loving Vincent is part of a new wave of roto­scoped ani­ma­tion. The cast was filmed play­ing scenes in cos­tume, with those scenes then paint­ed onto back­grounds done in Van Gogh’s bristling style. But the essen­tial real­ism of the fore­ground fig­ures clash­es with the freer hand giv­en the artists on the often beau­ti­ful and expres­sive back­grounds. The effect is fre­quent­ly of stand­ing in a gallery while a bunch of gab­by tourists block your view of the masterpieces.

Only in a brief dream sequence do the two visu­al styles tru­ly click. Armand imag­ines him­self to be the dying Van Gogh, sleep­ing in Van Gogh’s last bed, and the rabid col­ors and bru­tal but dreamy brush­strokes sud­den­ly make sense, paired with the work­ings of a sub­con­scious mind.

For all its mixed accom­plish­ments, Loving Vincent is still worth see­ing. This is a movie by two obses­sives, attempt­ing to break ani­ma­tion out of the dis­mal rut of the Disney/​Pixar/​Blue Sky/​Illumination indus­tri­al com­plex. It’s a film that gets an A” for effort, though one com­pro­mised by a C+ for sto­ry­telling. See it the way you’d see a sur­re­al­ist paint­ing — for its phys­i­cal beau­ty, rather than because it makes sense.

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