Loving Vincent is a recent biographical picture focused on Vincent Van Gogh, directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman. “Loving Vincent” as a title, I suppose, is intended to invoke both the film’s love for the artist, and echo the words he used to sign off from his letters — in particular, the letter which occupies the film’s dramatic centre, the last he ever wrote to his brother. Presumably, the directors hoped that these two words would also come to reflect the audience’s relationship to the figure of Van Gogh, as the film envelops us in both the aesthetics of his work — as the publicity boasts, Loving Vincent is the world’s first painted feature film — and accounts of the last few days of his life as told by a handful of characters who encountered him in various capacities. Loving Vincent thus becomes less of a biographical picture and more of a quasi-detective film, as Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) interviews various characters about Van Gogh and his suicide, in an attempt to deliver Van Gogh’s last written letter to his brother into secure hands.
Though the film is obviously proud of its animation feat of which over one hundred artists painstakingly painted every frame, I cannot say I was particularly impressed. The narrative runs clunkily and repetitively: Armand asks someone about Van Gogh, they mention someone else, who Armand then goes to interview, who then mentions someone else, and so on. Armand is batted between various characters and their mildly conflicting accounts of events which hold Van Gogh as their central focus. As each character speaks, like clockwork, their nostalgic recollection is shown on screen in greyscale accompanied by melancholic music and a voice-over from whoever is being interviewed. The relayed stories as told by each character are intended to create intrigue due to their contradictory accounts of events, though this hardly succeeds due to the failings in dialogue — the characters are hardly raconteurs.
Many of the characters featured in the film did actually appear in portraits Van Gogh painted in his lifetime. If you don’t happen to pick up on this, the end credit sequence clearly draws the lines from the character to the original painting for you. These portrayals are somewhat playful and probably enjoyable to spot if one is a fan of Van Gogh’s work, but just as likely, the game may wear thin quickly, and the references would be entirely lost on those not already well acquainted with his paintings.
Though such an animation technique has not been employed on such scale before, the film’s grammar and cinematic language remains unimaginative. The paint is used to create a couple of transition techniques between scenes which quickly grow tiresome as they are rolled out on multiple occasions. Oil paints’ material ability to easily vacillate between an impressionist and realistic rendering is not exploited and, because of the laboured animation, the “camera angles” and “shot movements” along with the dialogue and acting are bland and stunted, probably in the hope that the painted animation will carry the film and leave us feeling suitably impressed. Instead, I was disappointed — employing a time-consuming technique should not be expected to make up for poorness in other areas of the cinematic construction. Good examples of animated feature films that do not allow other dramatic articulations to slide include Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006) — both of which use rotoscope — and Duke Johnson Charlie Kaufman’s puppet stop-animation Anomilisa (2015). These examples also use their chosen animation to succinctly bind their medium to a conceptual message, without using this aspect as a crutch for poorly constructed narrative and characters. Vincent Van Gogh could surely invoke narrative excitement — troubled and talented, he offers a great blend for an engaging figure that has so much cultural resonance. And yet, here I cared little. A more successful excavation of the man and his work will surely be met by the same length of time spent with a book of his paintings than sat watching Loving Vincent.
James Lawrence Slattery
Loving Vincent is currently running in cinemas across the UK.
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