The Art (and Challenge) of Making Painterly Cinema
From Loving Vincent to Looney Tunes, exploring films that blur the lines between the canvas and the moving image
Countless filmmakers over the years have taken direct inspiration from famous paintings when creating their visuals, from Alfred Hitchcock’s patterning of the Bates house in Psycho after Edward Hopper’s House by the Railroad to Michael Mann’s emulation of Alex Colville’s Pacific in his crime epic Heat. However, far fewer directors have actually attempted to translate the corresponding formal techniques of painting to film.
In Loving Vincent, the world’s first fully oil-painted film, directors Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela retell the tragic story of Vincent van Gogh in the style of the artist himself, bringing 85 of the Post-Impressionist master’s most iconic paintings to cinematic life through a painstaking process that took over six years to complete. After the entire film was shot in live action, 125 artists were then tasked with recreating over 65,000 frames as individual oil paintings, which often required painting over the same canvas dozens of times to capture slight changes in movement from frame to frame.
The final result was 900 individual canvases matching the total number of shots in the film, split between those based directly on van Gogh’s bright, impressionistic brushstrokes for the framing story — a whodunnit-style investigation of the possible causes of the artist’s death — and a smoother, black-and-white technique for the flashback sequences depicting the painter’s final days.
While it’s easy to be blown away by the sheer aesthetic impact of the film — the treatment of various natural phenomena is awe-inspiring, including the transition from heavy rain and darkness to sunlight cascading into a room, or the reflection of a face in the window juxtaposed with the world beyond — the directors have also taken care to bolster their incredibly ambitious visual experiment with a strong narrative. The film’s protagonist, Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), is a postman’s son who is charged with delivering van Gogh’s final letter to the artist’s devoted brother, Theo. Embarking on an eye-opening journey that brings him into contact with those who knew van Gogh in his final days — including the artist’s love interest Marguerite Gachet (Saoirse Ronan) and her father Paul (Jerome Flynn), van Gogh’s doctor and confidante — Roulin develops a fascination that borders on obsession as he seeks to uncover the true circumstances of the artist’s mysterious death.
Loving Vincent is unique in applying its painterly technique to an entire feature-length narrative, but it descends from a tradition of films that attempt to literally reproduce the aesthetics of painting on screen, though the great majority of them conducted this experiment within a considerably more constrained timeframe. While painting and film are obviously akin as visual arts, the key difference between them is the element of time — which, in cinema, is often if not always linked to the element of narrative. And over the years, the recurring challenge for those filmmakers who have sought to create a genuinely painterly cinema is to convert the language of a medium largely unaffected by time to one that is virtually governed by it.
In the seven-minute Mindscape (1976), animator Jacques Drouin depicts an artist literally stepping into the landscape he is drawing, taking us deeper into a world of smooth contours and smoky abstraction. Drouin’s use of the pinscreen animation technique (in which pins are moved in or out of a screen by pressing an object against it) gives his film a unique textural quality that carries the film in its entirety. Despite the narrative conceit with which it begins, Mindscape isn’t so much a story as a purely visual experience, and given its brevity it doesn’t need to be anything more than that.
Similarly, in one episode of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990), an art student finds himself magically inside van Gogh’s paintings, where he encounters the artist himself (played, in a delightful cameo, by Martin Scorsese) and pursues him through a number of famous canvases.
Again, the slight narrative is merely the launching pad for a striking visual effect, as real people roam through static painted landscapes as if they had been absorbed into a world of infinite, interlinked brushstrokes that extend beyond the frame.
As a film’s length increases, however, the need for some kind of narrative underpinning increases as well. Apart from Loving Vincent, one of the most ambitious recent efforts to fuse the aesthetics of painting with the language of narrative cinema is Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross (2011), which attempts to bring to life a select number of the 500-plus characters depicted in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s famous 1564 painting The Procession to Calvary. Anchored by the presence of Bruegel himself (Rutger Hauer) observing his subjects from afar as he sketches the early stages of his masterpiece, Majewski’s film juxtaposes live-action characters with seemingly static backgrounds that are meant to emulate different areas of the landscape.
But each of these painterly vignettes — including a miller tending to the mill overlooking the fields below, crows picking at the flesh of bodies hoisted onto wheels in the sky, and Mary mourning over the dead body of Christ — feels as if they inhabit a plane utterly devoid of time, and spaces completely independent of one another. Unlike the student’s wanderings in Dreams, the characters in The Mill and the Cross never leave the areas they are assigned in Bruegel’s composition, meaning that they enact their mini-narratives in virtual isolation.
Ultimately, The Mill and the Cross feels less like a cinematized painting than a 360-degree virtual-reality installation that can be explored arbitrarily — but even in this likeness, it comes up short. Of course, like narrative film, VR as well has its limitations, despite its illusion of boundlessness. Even as a VR experience allows users to navigate an objective in a number of ways, it is still anchored by a reasonable number of spatial and temporal parameters to prevent its being merely an infinite loop without resolution.
However, what VR crucially does allow the user is a constrained but nonetheless genuine freedom of movement within its environment: one can explore spaces or scenes in the order one chooses, and re-experience them as many times as one wishes for as long as one wishes. By contrast, for all its installation-like qualities The Mill and the Cross is bound to the unshakeably linear progression of film; its assortment of scenes is presented strictly in the order dictated by the filmmaker, with no freedom for the viewer to roam.
As Majewski’s ambitious yet ultimately unsuccessful film demonstrates, merging painting and cinema is no easy task, but over the years certain films have shown that it is possible to accomplish this fusion by balancing the unique formal qualities of the former with the narrative demands of the latter. And while Loving Vincent may be the film of the moment in this regard, we should remember that, as in nearly all things, Bugs Bunny got there first.