You have never seen a movie quite like Loving Vincent. This film was literally hand-painted, mostly frame-by-frame, either with paintings themselves as the armature or over "film" of conventional actors, costumed and positioned as if in paintings.
Vincent is, of course, Vincent van Gogh, the Dutch painter whose life is fodder for a cult industry of worshippers the size of which would make Madonna envious -- and he has been dead since 1890. The film is about Vincent, but it's less about his life than his death. In many respects, it's an artful murder mystery that traffics in tentative revelations of a recent biography of van Gogh that claims the artist was murdered, in spite of his own confession of suicide.
Loving Vincent should actually have been named Killing Vincent, because the letter from Vincent to his famous brother Theo that occasions the movie's twisted plot -- signed, "Loving Vincent" -- leads to a multicity search for the truth about Vincent's death. The search is at first unwillingly undertaken by a handsome young man, whose features and costume are taken from a famous van Gogh portrait of Armand Roulin.
Armand is the shiftless son of the postmaster in Arles, France, who befriended the Dutch painter due largely to the steady stream of daily letters between Vincent and Theo that were delivered or posted by Roulin. One unposted letter addressed to Theo was found in the Yellow House, where Vincent had lived.
The delivery of the letter to Theo is the central journey of this coming-of-age film, whose star is not really the painter, but the young Armand who learns about himself by searching for the recipient of the letter.
The film's narrative is presented in two types of paintings -- one in black and white that indicates the past, and the other in vivid color and swirling brushstrokes, which tells the present and the hyper-present of Van Gogh's paintings.
As an art historian who has written about van Gogh, I found myself almost exhausted during the film, trying to identify each of the myriad sources in van Gogh's work -- some paintings known to all lovers of the Dutch artist and others decidedly obscure. As you watch, your eyes simply cannot stand still, because each scene is being painted and repainted as you look at it, and the whole film quivers with a nervous life that becomes, in many cases, almost manic.
Although never stated in the film, one reason for this is copyright law: Museums and collectors who own works by van Gogh often apply supercharged fees for the right to use the image of a painting. Had the producers of this film chosen to use the paintings themselves, their budget would have been eaten up by the fees. Instead, they created somewhat changed copies of the paintings, which are different enough to withstand copyright-infringement suits.
This presented the producers and writers of this labor-intensive film with the prospect of combining digital and hand-painting "technologies." More than 100 artists worked in Poland, Greece and England to animate the scenes.
The result is a nervous, gesticulating onrush of scenes that is most often wearisome but occasionally revelatory. Less successful are the actors, who speak with various English and foreign accents that add an audio component to the visual jumble of the film. The film presents a novel "solution" to the quandary -- murder or suicide, but I won't give it away. See for yourself.
LOVING VINCENT (B+)
PG-13 (for mature thematic elements, some violence, sexual material and smoking). 94 minutes. At the Angelika Dallas.