The first thing to know is that Loving Vincent is consistently beautiful to look at. Directing an animated biopic revolving around the disputed circumstances surrounding the death of Vincent Van Gogh, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman eschew a traditional hand-drawn or CGI approach, instead deciding on an insanely ambitious blend of live action and animation, shooting actors in front of green screens and then overlaying oil-painted animation atop the footage. The film’s animation alternates between black-and-white flashbacks and present-day color sequences to recreate some of Van Gogh’s most famous canvases, going so far as to emulate the Dutch painter’s groundbreaking thick-brushstroke impasto style. The result truly feels like Van Gogh’s paintings come to life, in which real-life human figures inhabit the world as Van Gogh saw it. Loving Vincent is, thus, a considerable visual achievement—and the filmmakers aren’t shy about trumpeting it, with a title card at the beginning summarizing the film’s animation process: “The film you are about to see has been entirely hand painted by a team of over 100 artists.”
If only the drama of Kobiela and Welchman’s film were quite as compelling as its imagery. Loving Vincent is structured as a mystery, with Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth)—the son of a postmaster (Chris O’Dowd) who was himself a subject of Van Gogh’s paintings, as are almost all the major characters in the film—wrapped up in trying to figure out whether Van Gogh actually killed himself or he was murdered. But there is a deeper dimension to Armand’s quest: As someone who had previously assumed Van Gogh was just an aspiring painter with serious loose screws, he’s also discovering the artist’s true nature (Van Gogh’s legendary reputation, for the most part, came only posthumously).
All of this may prove to be enlightening for viewers who come into the film wholly unaware of the particulars of Van Gogh’s life—his close relationship with his brother Theo, for instance—beyond the more widely known aspects (his struggles with melancholia, primarily). But those who have seen films like Vincente Minnelli’s biopic Lust for Life (1956), Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo (1990)—specifically about the tortured relationship between the two brothers—and Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh (1991), which focuses on the painter’s last days, will find little here that adds to our understanding of this brilliant, suffering artist beyond, perhaps, the revelation that there is even any mystery surrounding his death at all.
Those aforementioned films offered us fresh perspectives on the man: his insecurities, his desire to communicate his sense of wonder about the world through his art, his wild mood swings. Loving Vincent depicts the less interesting spectacle of a man discovering just how great of an artist Vincent Van Gogh actually was. To some degree, the lack of comparable insights in Kobiela and Welchman’s film affects one’s perception of the animation itself. No doubt the sheer effort to reproduce Van Gogh’s canvases into these motion tableau is impressive. And yet, as stimulating as it is, the animation ends up being more pictorial than expressive—an initially fancy but eventually rather monotonous way to dress up what is ultimately a mundane drag of a detective procedural. One would quite possibly glean more about the artist from simply looking at his canvases than by seeing them in this obsessively reproduced form.
Directors: Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman
Writers: Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Jacek Dehnel
Starring: Douglas Booth, Chris O’Dowd, Eleanor Tomlinson, Helen McCrory, Jerome Flynn, Saoirse Ronan, Robert Gulaczyk
Release Date: September 22, 2017
Kenji Fujishima contributes film criticism to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and Village Voice, in addition to Paste. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.