A quite extraordinary co-production between Poland and the UK, between artist and animator couple Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, Loving Vincent is billed as the world’s first fully painted feature film.
That means it was hand painted by 120 painters working in oils to create over 65, 000 paintings which animate the tableaux of Vincent van Gogh. Over 77 of his works are incorporated into the story, which is a meticulously researched ficiton, about Armand Roulin (played by Douglas Booth), son of the local postmaster in Auvers-sur-Oise, sent on a mission to deliver one of Vincent’s final letters to his brother, the art dealer Theo.
I know much of this as I had the pleasure of hosting the film’s Q&A premiere this week at the National Gallery, part of the LFF and beamed around the UK where reaction was rightly gawping. It’s an extraordinary thing to watch and I’ve certainly never seen anything quite like it before. “Wallace and Gromet, with paintings instead of stop motion clay models,” is how Huw Welchman describes it in its simplest terms.
It’d be nothing without the story, though, and that’s where Armand becomes detective, trying to work out what really happened to Vincent in the weeks leading up to his death, which he suspects might not have been suicide. The film makers use van Gogh’s famous – and less-famous – paintings for clues, bringing the everyday characters he painted to life and imbuing them with words, many of which have been taken verbatim from testimonies, statements and from Vincent’s own letters, which he always signed: Your Loving Vincent.
The voices and performances do come over oddly at first, like a radio play, but you soon get accustomed to it and it matches the visual flow.
Loving Vincent is both an exercise in style, pioneering technique, huge ambition and no little fan worship. But it’s also jaw-droppingly clever and eye-wateringly beautiful, the paintings slithering and sparkling and twinkling and writhing, the famous impasto of van Gogh’s oils wriggling like little swirls of larvae or sworls of chocolate. It’s almost like seeing things how Vincent himself must have in that frenetically productive 8 years of work between picking up the brush and being shot.
You’ll recognise some of the paintings and characters, such as Jerome Flynn’s Dr Gachet, and the fields of wheat, the bedroom and chair, the blonde waitress Adeline Ravoux (superbly played by Eleanor Tomlinson) and, of course, the starry, starry nights.
It’s a remarkable piece of art in itself, painstakingly researched with the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, but also using Arles, Paris and Auvers. Through Welchman’s animation, the paintings take on a new, throbbing, breathing after-life, and so too the ever-fascinating story of van Gogh’s own life, and his death. You have to see it to believe it, really, and that’s something very worth doing.