A previous version of this review appeared at the Film Experience.

Loving Vincent opens with two different title cards. The first talks about the labor practice involved in making the movie, and the second tells us what the movie is about. And that's pretty much exactly the right order: this is very much a movie wherein, if you enjoy it, you will enjoy it because it is the most beautiful and most impressively hand-made achievement in animation (which arguably makes it the most beautiful film of any sort) in 2017. Meanwhile, the story and characters are terrible, and every last role has been miscast. I've given it 4 stars, and I'm more worried that I've underrated it than overrated it, so you know what my priorities are, if there had been any confusion about that before now.

So, about that labor practice. Loving Vincent's ad campaign calls it the first animated film ever made entirely out of paintings, which is spectacularly not true; prior to 1989, very nearly every film was made entirely out of paintings, which is really all that cels are; if we want to be fussier and say "the first animated film made entirely out of oil paintings", it's only true if we limit ourselves to talking about feature-length projects. Which becomes a lot more impressive when we step back and realise, holy shit, this is an entire feature-length film made out of oil paintings. 65,000 oil paintings, they say in all the press releases, and the math checks out. It was made by a team 0f 115 painters working on glass plates, painting over reference footage of the actors all wearing clothes inspired by the paintings of Vincent van Gogh, on sets based on his paintings. Basically, it's rotoscoping, though that implies all the wrong things: rotoscoping was a time-saving, labor-efficient way to extract additional realism from animated movement, and not one of those descriptors is remotely applicable to the long-in-production passion project for directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman we have here.

The plot involves an investigation into the matter of van Gogh's death, with some flashbacks to his final weeks in Auvers-sur-Oise, which are presented in a relatively sedate black-and-white animation form that's much closer to "normal" digitally-aided 2-D animation; this is to say, it still doesn't look much anything like any other movie you'd be able to lay hands on at short notice, but it lacks the sheer aggressive power of the full color sequences. The point of this, beyond the basic need to add visual variety, is I think to provide a contrast that keeps our vision sharp enough to keep watching the movie. Loving Vincent makes a lot of demands on your eyes and attention; it would be very easy to simply settle into a rhythm of watching it as "just" movement, and this is something the black-and-white footage discourages us from doing.

Which is great, because remaining alert and focused on the painted material makes for a terrifically rewarding 94 minutes. Thing is, there's more than one way to paint with oils, and van Gogh's method was to heap paint on the canvas in thick, smudgy spatters of heightened, impossible colors,*† as is dutifully recreated by the artists making the film frames. And here we come to one of the subtle truths about animation, or at least animation made outside of a computer: it's still a photographic film style. We tend to think of it as just moving drawings, but of course those drawings are put in front of a camera as stills, snapped, and the next image comes along, and so forth. What this means for Loving Vincent is that we're not looking at a cartoon made in the style of oil paintings, we're looking at high-definition photograph reproductions of oil paintings, maintaining all of that tactility and texture, that sense of the paint itself as an object beneath the level of the images represented in paint. And that's what's moving: not the people, but the lines and swirls of oil paint, flying deftly across the screen and leaving the track of movement in patches of different texture. It's an amazing thing - I cannot name another thing like it in feature film history, though there have been more than a few amazing short films doing much the same thing. But return to my earlier point: those were short films, and this is sixty-five thousand paintings.

So the bad news is that Loving Vincent is fucking boring. The plot takes up in Arles, a year after van Gogh's death by apparent suicide. The postman Joseph Roulin (Chris O'Dowd) has a letter the painter wrote but never delivered to his brother Theo, and he feels it's long past time for the younger van Gogh to have it. So he sends his son Armand (Douglas Booth) on a chase across France to deliver it, learning almost immediately that Theo himself died mere months after Vincent. And thus Armand finds himself pulling threads that lead back to Auvers, where Vincent spent his last days before dying there. While waiting for the return of the one man who might be able to take the damn letter off his hands, his inquiries about Vincent's life and death start to push him towards the suspicion that the painter might not have taken his own life. Which would certainly be happy news for him to bring back to Joseph, one of the dead man's few dear friends.

In theory, this is all a study in how we can never really know a person, how suicidal depression does or doesn't look from the outside (particularly if you live in 19th Century France, and don't have access to the word "depression" as a clinical diagnosis), how we reconstruct memories of people we wish we'd treated better. In practice, it's a shitload of interviews.

The aesthetic justification for that is that the whole cast of characters is derived from van Gogh's portrait work, which means that in essence, we're watching his very distinctive faces coming to life and speaking. Often, speaking in Irish accents, which is a peculiar choice for a Polish-English co-production about a Dutchman living in France, but okay, we can run with it (the Irishness of the cast is probably smaller than I think it is, but the presence of O'Dowd and Saoirse Ronan -Β  the two biggest names by a lot - skews things). And this is, visually at least, never anything less than compelling. Dramatically, though, it results in a great many variations on scenes that go "Tell me about Vincent." "Ah, Vincent. I never understood Vincent. Let me explain my lack of understanding for the next eight minutes." It's not that it's "bad", but even less is it interesting to watch, and for only a 94 minute film, Loving Vincent starts to drag real bad.

You can tell it's just not what anybody cared about. The story, more than is generally true even in the most stylistically outlandish animation, really is just a pretext for the artwork. And that, at least, is a superb accomplishment. I hate to say that Loving Vincent is a film only for people who adore van Gogh and/or formalist animation fans, and it would be a stifling bore for anybody else, but as both a van Gogh adorer and a formalist animation scholar, let alone fan, I don't want to predict anybody else's ability access something within this film. It's a rare and special achievement though, one of the small number of genuinely unique films that comes out in any given year, and for all that I feel confident that a better film could have been made just like this one (I can't believe I'm going to say this, but why not just a van Gogh biopic?), this is still a pretty damn rewarding exercise in marrying fine art with cinema, if that's your sort of thing.




*In re: thick smears, the happiest time I've ever spent in an art museum was during a van Gogh exhibition, when I found myself almost nose-to-nose with some of the paintings, admiring the fierce tactility of the blobs of paint, the very matrix of the painting emerging as itself a fascinating sculptural display. It would not be unfair to say this moment changed the way I interact with art.




†In re: impossible colors, this article is a hell of a fascinating read, though I think less conclusive than the author maintains.