In 1956’s Lust for Life, artist Paul Gauguin (Anthony Quinn) screams at his friend Vincent van Gogh (Kirk Douglas), “All I see when I look at your paintings is that you paint too fast!” Van Gogh shouts back, “You look too fast!” That confrontational ethos and van Gogh’s 800 oil paintings were the bedrock of the modern art movement — and the Dutch master’s sense of impossible daring is alive in a massively ambitious new animated film.
Loving Vincent begins a year after van Gogh died by suicide in 1890 at the age of 37. In an effort to understand his death, an amateur sleuth (Douglas Booth) seeks out several of van Gogh’s painting subjects, including Marguerite Gachet (Saoirse Ronan). Wistful grace notes about life and loss are touched upon and composer Clint Mansell (Requiem for a Dream) provides another alternately spooky and beautiful musical score.
But the real reason to see the film is this: Every single one of its 65,000 frames were hand-painted in van Gogh’s style, making Loving Vincent the world’s first fully painted feature film. Those sensual, hallucinogenic yellow and blue brush smears from “The Starry Night” and “Starry Night Over the Rhône” literally come alive before your eyes — and that’s just one of 130 van Gogh masterpieces woven into the plot. The effect, which is comparable to Richard Linklater’s dreamy Waking Life, cannot quite sustain the length of a feature film. But damned if Loving Vincent isn’t one of the most lunatic labors of love to appear on movie screens this year. And in that sense, a fitting, miraculous tribute to its subject. A–