In cinema’s infancy, colorists, largely female, were engaged to chemically bathe or painstakingly stencil celluloid images in an attempt to add grace notes of the fantastic to this already magical form. As early as 1917, animation king Max Fleischer patented the rotoscope, a technique permitting animators to draw over filmed actors in an attempt to solve the genre’s fluidity problem (this process was taken to greater, and gaudier, heights in the 1970’s by Ralph Bakshi.) Post-war, the National Film Board’s grand master, Norman MacLaren, would scratch, gouge, and otherwise mar each frame of a film strip until its images dutifully jived to a bouncy music track, producing a kind of boogie-woogie Miro.
All of them would be impressed with what is, inarguably, the climax of this mini movement, the English-Dutch-Polish co-production Loving Vincent. Ambitiously, this film brings Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings – he made 2,100 of them in just under 8 years – to fluid, florid life, thanks to the diligent work of over 100 artists working on 65,000 frames of film over a 7-year period. If that alone fails to amaze, consider this: that the bulk of this team volunteered for the assignment, after visionary co-directors Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela posted a scene-in-progress on You Tube (a marketing ploy which also helped to secure financing.) Each recruit busily hand-painted (yes, hand-painted, with a brush – not a computer) cinematic replicas of still lifes, portraits, and self-portraits by the world’s most famous Post-Impressionist, as well as select scenes rehearsed by semi-name character actors filmed against a green screen. The result, oceans of sweat later, is an eye-catching 94 minutes in Van Gogh land, a universe as wondrous, mad, and alive as any that Alice fell into.
But there is more than the simple love of Van Gogh’s radiant impasto at large here; evident too is a healthy regard for another catalogue of stylistic distinction, American film noire. Our hero, Van Gogh’s foppish Armand Roulin come to life, is charged with bringing Vincent’s final, posthumous letter to his benefactor-brother Theo. When he discovers that Theo too is no longer alive, he is set Chandler-style, on a long, winding investigation of Vincent’s last days; did the troubled artist take his own life or was that fateful shot to the belly administered by somebody else?
Like Humphrey Bogart, Alan Ladd or Robert Mitchum before him, Roulin plays the tough guy-confessor. It is through his cynical superiority that two-faced dames, sly self-made men, and colourful eccentrics riff ambiguously until trigger telling flashbacks, each one, appropriately, in black and white.
While these service both the story and the genre, they are a disappointing contrast to the rest of the film. For all of the mystery and melodramatics afoot, we would rather remain among the burning flowers, the willowy cypresses, and the surreal hayfields with which we were surrounded before the accusations ran too deep. The result is a schizophrenic exercise, half film noire, half film crazed coleur.
That said, the acting, though necessarily disguised, manages to distinguish itself. Through fidgety brushstrokes constituting ultramarine age lines, ochre facial hair, and Prussian-blue eyes, which coat the actors’ faces like living war paint, Johny Depp-lookalike Douglas Booth gives us a creditable detective, Saoirse Ronan distinguishes herself nicely as the sweet’n’sour centre of the investigation, and the always reliable Chris O’Dowd and Jerome Flynn bring notable authentica to their parts as postmaster and doctor, two of Van Gogh’s most famous figures.
No doubt this film will go down as a bravura curio – though should it transition from the art house to the cineplex, it might be canonized an animated classic (though children would likely have to respond to it for that, and it’s far too dry, and expository an exercise.) Certainly, you can forget about any sequels, or any ideas that it might spawn a genre…hmmm…then again…a Western set to the works of Frederic Remington? An old-fashioned adventure yarn animating N.C. Wyeth? Soft porn using the women of Gustav Klimt?
Just as it does when contemplating the technique of Loving Vincent, the mind boggles.