'Loving Vincent' Paints Van Gogh Into A Murder Mystery

Sep 26, 2017
Originally published on September 26, 2017 5:36 pm

It would be hard to pay homage to Vincent Van Gogh with more fervor or devotion than filmmakers Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman bring to Loving Vincent, in which they've not only created thousands of new oil paintings in his style, but also made him the subject of a murder-mystery.

It begins in 1891, a year after Van Gogh died, when a postman discovers an undelivered letter the artist wrote to his brother Theo, and sends his very reluctant, very drunk son to deliver it — a task that will prove difficult. The postman's son discovers that Theo died soon after Vincent did, and then tries to find others who knew him, realizing as he goes that the death that was said to be a suicide, may not have been so cut and dried.

All of this is about what you'd expect of a film — in this case an animated film — that means to make a mystery of Van Gogh's suicide. But if you're picturing "animation" in the Disney-drawn or Pixar-computerized senses of the word, you'll need to think again. In Loving Vincent, it's as if the paint has leapt directly from Van Gogh's canvases to the screen, and then started moving.

The credits begin with what look like broad brushstrokes being painted on glass — thick oil paint — blue-green swirls and yellow smears that gradually resolve into a familiar image: the moon glowing in the middle of one of Van Gogh's most famous canvases, The Starry Night. There are those circular, roiling clouds, the slender cyprus tree on the left, and the church spire just to the right of the tree.

As the camera zooms in, that spire turns out to be part of a town, where we hear a fight break out. From The Starry Night to fight-night in twenty seconds, a striking introduction to a film that is about to provide a tour through many of Van Gogh's most famous works: rooms in taverns, crows flying over wheat fields, portraits come to life and talking a mile a minute.

Directors Kobiela and Welchman first shot their story as a live-action film with actors in costume, on sets that look like specific Van Gogh paintings. You'll likely recognize many of the paintings, though they're often modified and elongated to fit the shape of the movie screen. Then the filmmakers employed more than 100 artists to hand-paint each frame's image in oils, matching Van Gogh's style and brush-strokes.

Once a frame was painted, it was photographed, and then the artist could create the next frame by painting over the parts that needed to move.

The effect is remarkable, hand-painted animation turning out to be very different from hand-drawn (where lines merge smoothly as figures move). Here, water clots and gushes, a quizzical expression flickers into anger around the eyes, and when a mysterious figure zips through a garden, he leaves a physical imprint — thick oil impasto — on the painted grass.

Altogether, some 65,000 oil paintings were created for Loving Vincent, which speaks to the passion the filmmakers had for their subject. Their story isn't quite as compelling as their execution, but during the final credits, when images of the performers are juxtaposed with Van Gogh's original portraits, and also with the screen versions they inspired, you will marvel at the art in this labor-intensive labor-of-love.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A new movie looks at artist Vincent Van Gogh in a startling way. It uses thousands of oil paintings to create a unique form of animation and a murder mystery. The film is called "Loving Vincent." NPR critic Bob Mondello says that when it comes to these filmmakers, it seems love knows no bounds.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: It's 1891, a year after Vincent Van Gogh has died, and a postman still has an undelivered letter the artist wrote to his brother Theo. Delivering it will turn out to be tough, as the postman's son discovers when he tries.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVING VINCENT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I'm afraid you'll never deliver that letter to Theo Van Gogh.

DOUGLAS BOOTH: (As Armand Roulin) Oh, I see. Well, how come?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Six months after we buried Vincent, Theo was dead, too.

MONDELLO: That makes things more complicated, but the quest continues.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVING VINCENT")

BOOTH: (As Armand Roulin) There is this doctor who I believe is the person to entrust the letter to.

MONDELLO: That would be the doctor who treated Vincent at an asylum. Arriving in Auvers, the postman's son finds plenty of folks who remember the artist, not always fondly.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVING VINCENT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) You're not going to stir things up again, are you? We've had quite enough weeping over that nutcase in this household.

MONDELLO: All of this is about what you'd expect of a film - in this case an animated film - that means to make a mystery of Van Gogh's suicide.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVING VINCENT")

BOOTH: (As Armand Roulin) Why didn't he just pick up the gun and finish the job?

MONDELLO: But if you're picturing animation in the Disney drawn or Pixar computerized senses of the word, you'll need to think again. In "Loving Vincent," it's as if the paint has leapt directly from Van Gogh's canvases to the screen and then started moving. The credits begin with what look like broad brush strokes being painted on glass, thick oil paint, blue-green swirls and yellow smears that gradually resolve into a familiar image - the moon glowing in the middle of one of Van Gogh's most famous canvases, "Starry Night," surrounded by roiling clouds and a slender cypress tree on the left. There's a church spire just to the right of the tree. And as the camera zooms in, it turns out to be part of a town where we hear a fight break out.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVING VINCENT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, groaning).

MONDELLO: From "Starry Night" to fight night, a striking introduction to a film that is about to provide a tour through many of Van Gogh's most famous works - rooms in taverns, crows flying over wheat fields, portraits come to life talking a mile a minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVING VINCENT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) You could set your watch by him. Painting from 8 until 5, you'd think he was going off to a regular job.

MONDELLO: Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman first shot their story as a live-action film with actors in costume on sets that look like specific Van Gogh paintings. You'll likely recognize many of them. Then the filmmakers employed more than a hundred artists to hand-paint each frame's image in oils, matching Van Gogh's style and brush strokes. Once a frame was painted it was photographed, and then the artist could create the next frame by painting over the parts that needed to move.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWS CAWING)

MONDELLO: The effect is remarkable. Hand-painted animation turns out to be very different from hand-drawn, as in Disney films where lines merge smoothly as figures move. Here, water clots and gushes. A quizzical expression flickers into anger around the eyes. And when a mysterious figure zips through a garden, he leaves a physical imprint, thick oil impasto on the painted grass.

Altogether, some 65,000 oil paintings were created for "Loving Vincent," which speaks to the passion the filmmakers had for their subject. Their story isn't quite as compelling as their execution. But in the end, when images of the performers are juxtaposed with Van Gogh's original portraits and with the screen versions they inspired, you will marvel at the art in this labor-intensive labor of love. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STARRY STARRY NIGHT")

LIANNE LA HAVAS: (Singing) Starry, starry night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.