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Annecy Animated Film Festival: ‘Loving Vincent’ Review

With all the movies I’ve reviewed for One of over the years, it’s a pleasure to finally have a chance to talk about a movie that has come from my very own home  – Poland! Even better, it’s a treat to talk about a movie that makes me extra proud to be Polish, as “Loving Vincent” is a visual marvel. While Polish “cartoony” animation was never that big outside of our country, we have had plenty of worldwide acknowledged “artsy” animated projects and Dorota Kobiela’s “Loving Vincent” is yet another phenomenal example. Not only is the movie 100% hand-painted but it’s the very first oil painted animated feature.

The story is similar in structure to “Citizen Kane” being set right after Vincent Van Gogh’s tragic death. One of his friends, an elderly mailman, has the very last letter written by Van Gogh. He asks his son (Armand) to personally deliver the letter to Vincent’s brother who lives in the countryside, where Vincent spent a chunk of his life painting. While looking for his brother, Armand starts coming across people from Van Gogh’s life, all telling various anecdotes about him, sometimes revealing, sometimes conflicting with the previous stories, and sometimes showing Vincent in a completely new light. Armand begins an investigation in order to discover whether Van Gogh really committed suicide or if he was murdered and in the process makes sense of the type of man that he really was. A madman? A genius? Both?

The screening at the Annecy Festival I attended had a standing ovation that went from about 15 to 20 minutes for the entire credits and beyond; it probably deserved to be three times longer. The story is well put together and the acting is fine but the real heroes are the animators who created over 65 thousand oil paintings in order to make the animations work. It took seven years to make the movie and all the hard work is visible on the screen.

Before seeing the movie, my friends and I were a bit concerned about the shaky way the characters moved in the trailers. It felt like something that would get annoying quickly be distracting, but after few minutes we quickly got used to it. If anything it created a hypnotic dream-like feeling, a surreal experience that felt appropriate for a film exploring Van Gogh’s art style.

The animation took full advantage of the paint with many creative segues as the world literally melted from one place to another. Whenever characters moved far into the background they got more blurred, looking like paint blots, which was clever. The rain and fire sometimes are realistic, other times they are symbolic lines and circles. Honestly if you’re not grabbed by the story but you’re into painting in any way (not just Van Gogh’s but in general) you will be still delighted. The way cigarette smoke is vanishing, the way the puddles are splashing, the candle fire is dancing, the light is reflecting on the wall… Everything in the image is constantly moving and changing. One shot that stuck with me was Armand’s hotel room during the night. It’s raining outside but you don’t see the window but reflection of it on the wall – it’s just so utterly beautiful to gaze upon.

Some audience members I talked to complained about the flash-backs which were made in a photorealistic black and white style that differs from Van Gogh’s paintings (or the rest of the style of the film). I think it brought a lot of variation to the visual style of the story and provided some interesting contrasts. What characters imagine is presented as closer to how our world looks like, while their “real world”, the one that Van Gogh saw every day, is more surreal and abstract. I may read too much into it, but I think there is some commentary there, that juxtaposition of styles.

If I had any criticisms here, they are with the script. The majority of the movie is scenes of characters sitting down and having conversations. While the dialogue was good, whenever some type of action happened, such as Armand getting into a fist fight with couple of drunkards, or when he was chasing a boy that was stalking him, it really livened the mood and felt like an overdue dose of energy to the story. Of course “Loving Vincent” is not some type of action thriller and it’s not meant to be. It’s all about the atmosphere and I enjoyed the way story unraveled, but I think a few slight improvements wouldn’t hurt.

One of the most memorable scenes involved Armand interviewing one of Vincent’s doctors who is an elderly but eccentric fellow. It’s another scene of two people having a conversation but here the doctor is walking all the time, dramatically trying to recreate what happened with comical mannerisms, dragging Armand into his reenactment. I think more scenes could have benefited from something like that, as my only fear is that the movie might get monotonous for people used to mainstream cinema.

At the same time “Loving Vincent” delivers what the title promises : it’s a celebration of Van Gogh’s art and enjoying the mood it created. I can’t recommend movie strongly enough. I encourage you to see it on the big screen if you get the chance. I’m sure one day it will get a blue-ray release, packed with tons of intriguing making of features but experiencing this movie for the first time on a laptop feels like a sin against nature. It’s a film that deserves viewing on biggest screen possible and I’m foretelling it will get an Oscar nomination for best animated feature. It deserves recognition and I hope it will inspire similar projects around the world.

Find tickets and showtimes on Fandango.

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