Saturday, 2 December 2017

Movie Review: Loving Vincent (2017)



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I’ve discussed before how the notion of there being no new ideas in the realm of cinema really doesn’t bother me that much. I’m far more concerned about stories being told well than whether or not I’ve already seen something like it before. However, just because I’m apathetic towards the possibility of fresh ideas doesn’t mean that I’m immediately turned off by that same possibility. I say all this because today’s film, in no uncertain terms, is a unique specimen. A production funded by the Polish Film Institute, with some of its funding being crowdsourced through Kickstarter, that marks the world’s first animated film made entirely of oil paintings. No line drawings, no CGI, no instances of one trying to masquerade as the other; just real-ass paintings. Given the subject matter of today’s film, that being the life and death of famed painter Vincent Van Gogh, this decision definitely fits but what is the end result? This kind of high-concept filmmaking, rather than high-concept narrative, very easily could devolve into being just a gimmick meant to hold up an otherwise unremarkable film; think a more high-brow version of the latest 3D movie. Ugh… enough with this empty cynicism and let’s get into this truly incredible film already. This is Loving Vincent.

The plot: Metal worker Armand (Douglas Booth) is tasked by his father (Chris O’Dowd) to deliver a letter from a now-deceased Vincent Van Gogh (Robert Gulaczyk) to his brother. He starts interviewing people in Vincent’s hometown for information about where to deliver the letter and it seems that everyone had a different idea of who Vincent was during his lifetime. As he continues to follow the breadcrumb trail, he learns about the many facets and tragedies of who would go on to become one of the most celebrated artists in human history.

Booth is fantastic as our focal point character, handling his arc of understanding very smoothly and having good chemistry with everyone else here. O’Dowd sets a very hard precedent for the film’s emotional weight in his very first scene, and his rapport with Booth definitely sells that the two characters are related. Eleanor Tomlinson as a local inn proprietor brings some warmth into what is a very maudlin film, which ends up helping out a lot in the long run since it highlights how the film manages to handle both tones quite well. Aidan Turner’s boatman doesn’t even have a real name to his character, and yet he follows O’Dowd in being able to leave an incredible impression with how he delivers his achingly poignant dialogue. Helen McCrory is playing an absolute cad of a housekeeper, easily the witness who has the lowest impression of Van Gogh, but just leaving it at that would be to ignore how well she seeps venom into every word she spits at his name. Saoirse Ronan gets a smaller but quite crucial role and she pulls it off excellently, and Jerome Flynn as Vincent’s doctor and Ronan’s father manages to leave the film on one hell of a note concerning Van Gogh’s mental state. And Gulaczyk as Van Gogh himself mostly exists in movement, not so much in dialogue, but he does admirably with what he’s given.

As said above, this film is about as unconventional as you can get for a modern animated film. A little over 100 oil painters worked to make 65,000 individual frames to create this film. I bring this up both because the film literally opens with that bit of information, but also because that level of effort definitely pays off in the final product. For as advanced as computer-generated animation has gotten over the last several years, there’s still something inimitable about good old fashioned paint. The visual style is built around Van Gogh’s own work, with live-action actors modelled off of real people as captured in the man’s portraits rotoscoped onto canvas. While it has a similar feel as Richard Linklater’s work with rotoscoping, the visible textures on the screen create something new entirely. It’s as if you could run your hand across the projector screen and feel the brushstrokes, the indentations where the paint hardens. Almost as if it’s breathing before our eyes, inducing us into a trance through how the brushstrokes meld together. For a film with this unique of a selling point, it’s only fitting that the effect it leaves on the audience is likewise unique.

Like a lot of creative workers who died long before their time (if there even is such a time worth dying at), one of the main things people know about Vincent Van Gogh is that he shot himself… and that he cut off his ear and gave it as a present. Narratively, the film is structured like Citizen Kane in how it uses outside perspectives to paint a picture (heh) about a larger-than-life person. However, that ends up taking on a different form once it sinks in just how much this film delves into Van Gogh’s psychology. When it comes to death, especially self-inflicted, hindsight tends to make us all feel like we could have done a lot more than we ultimately did. Anyone who has lost someone to suicide will be familiar with phrases like “But they seemed so happy” or “I never would have guessed that they’d do something like that” or even “How selfish of them”. But that’s the thing about mental illness: Unless you’re capable of literally seeing a person’s thoughts, you probably wouldn’t notice that something is wrong. As we hear more and more conflicting perspectives about Vincent pile up over the course of the story, the film even presents alternate theories about how he could have died and who was responsible.

Not that this film tries to rewrite history; this isn’t Dan Brown we’re dealing with here. Instead, it ends up showing how most people are rarely remembered as just one thing. For those who knew him, Vincent is described as shy, romantic, insane, calm, eccentric, brilliant and all of those statements are true. Because this is what happens when someone becomes so popular, so beloved, so renowned for what they brought into the world, that they become mythologized. Not to say that is in any way a bad thing; it’s just something that happens when people become personally attached to art. Look at the chaos that happened last year in terms of personal celebrity heroes leaving this plane of existence, and the crap going on this year in terms of celebrities that we can only wish will leave this plane of existence. We take our heroes very seriously and, as we’re increasingly becoming aware of, they are just as flawed as the rest of us. Like most artists, Vincent worried that he would be seen only a good-for-nothing. However, again like most artists, he was determined to prove those people wrong. And so we have this film: A look at a lauded artist described by the people who were close to him, presented in a style evocative of his own work that highlights everything that he is, even the darker corners of his mind, as something to be remembered and honoured. Most biographical films aim for this ballpark, but only a handful of them can claim to hit the nail on the head as hard as this does.

All in all, this is a truly impressive piece of art; thankfully, not even the classical snobs can argue with that statement based purely on its fundamentals. The acting is top-notch with quite a few tearjerkers brought on through their performances, the production creates a truly unique aesthetic that proves to be far more than just a simple gimmick, and the writing highlights aspects of art and mental health in a way that does major service to Vincent Van Gogh’s legacy, both as an artist and as a victim of his own demons. This is one of the few times where I can say, without hyperbole, that there is nothing quite like this in the realm of cinema. I’m not expecting this to start a whole new enterprise for the medium, but when it’s this damn good, it really doesn’t need to. It ranks higher than Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets, as this goes even further in showing what modern technology is capable of in terms of creating new visual paradigms. However, even with how grateful I am for a depiction of depression and suicidal ideation that is this resonant, it still doesn’t boast the utterly disarming emotional chops of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. You know you’re a geek when you rank a literal work of art below a superhero flick. Bite me; Yondu still makes me bawl my eyes out.

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