Monday, October 23, 2017

Loving Vincent

Good job, movie - you got booked at Kendall Square for a one-week engagement, but I caught you during week #3 when you still were still running a full schedule. You've made over a million bucks, which is not a small achievement for an animated film for adults from a tiny, tiny distributor, and you maybe haven't even hit the top of your curve. As much as this isn't a movie I really love - I found myself kind of impatient at a few points and was kind of surprised by the applause at the end - but you've got to root for an independent movie having that kind of success, even if it's an order of magnitude or two less than what usually passes for a box-office success story.

Loving Vincent

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 October 2017 in Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run, DCP)

The opening titles of Loving Vincent make sure to remind the audience that every frame has been hand-painted by hundreds of artists, and in a way, that's the same sort of thing as "based on a true story", making a viewer feel guilty for any shortcomings they find even if that's not strictly the intention. One is going to be struck by the way this movie looks, regardless of whether the rest of the way the story is told has its bumps.

And, make no mistake, this film is striking; from the opening credits which evoke "Starry Night" to the end, filmmakers Dorota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman have chosen to evoke Vincent van Gogh's work with oil-painted backgrounds and foregrounds, often with thick gobs of paint that show the brushstrokes, occasionally having the scene open with a specific work or resolve into one. It is, obviously, a formidable effort made only a little less impressive when one watches the end credits and sees that there has been some compositing going on - it's still a lot of strokes that it's impressive are kept straight from frame to frame, let alone second to second. Kobiela & Welchman seldom present truly static images, but are judicious in their motion - the instants captured by van Gogh are not swallowed by busy animation, but they give figures from those paintings a messy life that they cannot have on canvas, no matter how evocative the original pieces may be.

But what do the filmmakers use that life they have bestowed for? They open the film in Arles, a year after van Gogh's death, with postmaster Joseph Roulin (Chris O'Dowd) charging his ne'er-do-well son Armand (Douglas Booth) with delivering a letter Vincent had sent to his brother Theo. Armand has little enthusiasm for the job - he did not think of the eccentric artist as fondly as his father did - but makes his way to Paris to meet art supplier Pere Tanguy (John Sessions), only to find out that Theo followed his brother six months later, with his family vanishing from Paris soon after. He does offer a tip, saying that Armand should meet Doctor Gachet (Jerome Flynn) in Auvers-sur-Oise, where the painter died, but as he waits for an appointment, he soon finds himself not simply looking for a forwarding address, but trying to solve the mystery of the man's death, as suicide seems out of character, but every conversation with people from Gachet's daughter Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan) to the local innkeeper (Eleanor Tomlinson) and the boatman with whom van Gogh spent a great deal of time (Aidan Turner) gives contradictory information which further suggests to Armand that something is being covered up.

The actual story that Kobiela, Welchman, and co-writer Jacek Dehnel come up with is a stumbling assembly, and when viewed as a mystery story it seems especially poorly constructed: Armand never seems to come to any conclusions of his own, just plodding along in whatever direction the last person he met with a strong opinion indicated, and often arriving at questions he really should have covered already. Information is repeated enough to frustrate a viewer who can recognize time being killed, and for the portion of the audience which already knows much about van Gogh's life and death, it is inevitable that his path will ultimately lead back to the spot where they started, just with these fictional or fictionalized versions of people included.

Strip away that which is specific to van Gogh - no easy task, as he is in every inch of every frame - and a more interesting idea does emerge: Armand is struggling to comprehend the man's suicide, because even with van Gogh's history of erratic behavior and self-doubt, it is not something that easily fits into Armand's view of the world, and it is far easier to comprehend villainy or recklessness than that (although, to an extent, Armand's mind can't help but see others' recklessness as villainy, despite his own shortcomings in that area). Seen that way, his ping-ponging from one point of view to another makes a sort of sense, as does any eventual peace necessarily coming from outside the situation in question. It's complicated a bit because these late-19th-century people don't have the vocabulary to talk about mental illness that the early-21st-century people in the audience do; "melancholia" feels like an imprecise and misleading term, even if it is period-accurate.

It's interesting that the filmmakers stuck with that particular vocabulary, because while using more modern terminology would have been obviously anachronistic enough to feel wrong, the voice-acting is is just short of that anyway, as the cast speaks with accents that are specifically-British enough to sound odd in a film where nearly all the characters and locations are French. It's not bad - this kind of voicework is probably better than trying to speak English dialogue with a pseudo-French accent that's not suited for it - but it's a bit jarring. It works, by and large, and the score by Clint Mansell is also impressive, seeming well-matched to the style and setting but also fit for a modern, active film.

Indeed, the way the acting and music mesh with the design of the film is impressive; much of the film is clearly rotoscoped (at least some, though not all, from the main voice cast), and the filmmakers do a good job of letting the performances come through without either smothering them or pushing the style of the film to the background. They also do well to vary that style a bit even in the film's present day, as well as using the added clarity to the black-and-white flashbacks (modeled more on van Gogh's pencil drawings than his paintings) to make them distant but not indistinct.

Drop that line from the opening, let the audience think that this is done with some sort of "conventional" CGI, and maybe Loving Vincent isn't quite so immediately impressive; maybe the shortcomings of its storytelling make a bigger impression. Even then, though, it would be something to see, and will impress whether one has a particular interest in this artist or not.

Full review on EFC (dead link).

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