In order to bring the art of Vincent Van Gogh to life for the film Loving Vincent, directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman commissioned over a hundred painters to create more than 60,000 oil paintings. Because of the painstaking care and love for the artist’s work, Loving Vincent took over seven years to create, an outstanding achievement that turns some of Van Gogh’s 800 paintings from his ten year career into an animated take of his last moments. Despite the remarkable work that goes into bringing Loving Vincent to screen, it’s the story that isn’t worth the paint used to tell it.
Beginning a year after Van Gogh’s death from a supposed self-inflicted gunshot wound, Loving Vincent is told by Armand (Douglas Booth), the son of a postmaster and friend to Van Gogh, Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd). Joseph is in possession of the last letter written by Van Gogh and tasks his son to deliver the letter to the artist’s brother Theo. Once Armand learns that Theo also died soon after his brother, Armand travels to Auvers-sur-Oise, where Van Gogh died. Armand’s simple letter delivery leads him to discover the truth behind Van Gogh’s death, investigating the home he stayed at, discussing Van Gogh’s mental state with his doctor, Paul Gachet (Jerome Flynn) and the possible romance with the doctor’s daughter Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan). The further Armand delves into Van Gogh’s last few weeks of life, he has a hard time rationalizing why such a talented artist would take his own life.
Loving Vincent took performances by the actors and rotoscoped the animations overtop them. Imagine the technique used for Waking Life, just with more “The Starry Night.” Because of that choice, the animated characters have small intricacies that the usual animated film would lack. Especially in performances by Flynn and O’Dowd, there are slight nuances that the gorgeous oil paintings are able to capture that have more of a power than the actual art used to make them.
As overpoweringly beautiful the film’s style might be, it also at times turns the film into a scavenger hunt of Van Gogh masterpieces. Every well-known Van Gogh painting is represented in some way, often turning his paintings into characters for the story. It’s both a compelling idea and a problematic way to shoehorn in all of the artist’s greatest hits.
Written by Kobiela, Welchman, and Jacek won Dehnel, Loving Vincent turns the end of Van Gogh’s life into a mystery, making him almost a MacGuffin for Armand to track down. The result is similar to a late-1800’s, animated take on Law & Order, as Armand tries to solve how a man “cured” of depression could commit suicide, or looking for murder weapons and the scene of the shooting, hoping to come to a solid conclusion.
Because of this rather banal story, Loving Vincent’s greatest accomplishment hurts the film’s narrative. The decision to animate this plot puts an extra layer of separation between the storytellers and the audience, and never quite warrants the artistic decision for the story being told. When Loving Vincent film flashes back to Van Gogh final weeks, the film uses photorealistic animation, telling these moments in black-and-white, ignoring the stylistic choices used throughout the rest of the film. Not only are these some of the most fascinating and stark moments of Loving Vincent because they put Van Gogh at the forefront, but they also bring into question why bringing his work to life was needed to tell this story in the first place.
The unique visual achievement of Loving Vincent is frequently staggering, it is in service of a bland, plodding procedural story is a poor mixing of style and substance. The ambitious and thorough nature of its presentation is fitting of the artist it tries to homage, but once you wipe away all that dazzling paint, all that’s left is a blank canvas.