Beneath the surface, ‘Loving Vincent’ is a fairly dull Vincent van Gogh bio-pic by way of a ‘Citizen Kane’ knockoff. But oh…what a surface. The animated feature was meticulously hand painted in the artist’s signature style. That’s a remarkable visual feat that’s beautiful to behold. Too bad the movie beneath those gorgeous images doesn’t quite live up to that standard.
First let’s discuss the technical achievement, because it is extraordinary. Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman hired 125 artists who spent the better part of a decade creating no less than 62,450 paintings. The film is entirely comprised of oil-on-canvas images. That’s an insane amount of artistic labor and the work shows. The brush strokes are visible. Each and every image has a tactile quality. That’s of course true of van Gogh’s paintings as well, so it’s a noble tribute executed with a remarkable attention to detail. It creates a woozy dreamlike atmosphere a la ‘Waking Life’, while also unfortunately not adding much to that style of rotoscope visual storytelling to justify all the effort. It’s amazing that the team pulled this off. Sadly, beyond the images, the film itself is dull enough to pretty much ensure it’ll be the last time this will ever be attempted.
Taking obvious cues from ‘Citizen Kane’, the film is an amateur detective tale of sorts, examining van Gogh’s death. Douglas Booth stars as Armand Roulin, a man assigned to take the final letter from Vincent to his brother Theo. When he discovers that Theo has also passed on following the depressed funk that came from learning the news, Roulin becomes obsessed with uncovering the rest of the story. He talks to everyone from van Gogh’s paint supplier to his doctor. A complicated portrait of van Gogh emerges, suggesting that he may have been anything from a suicidal lunatic to a bullied innocent and might even have been murdered. Eventually, he gets the softest and truest story from van Gogh’s doctor’s daughter (Saoirse Ronan), who creates such a sweet and heartbreaking portrait that Roulin finally learns to appreciate the tragic talent of the legendary artist.
None of this is particularly new. Someone completely unfamiliar with van Gogh’s life might find the strange collection of stories inspiring, but it’s unlikely that anyone interested in watching a hand-painted portrait of van Gogh won’t know what they’re getting into. Ultimately, it’s a very simplistic portrait of the artist, making dull observations about the void left by the death of an inspiring man without ever answering any of the important questions about what led him to suicide. Past films including Robert Altman’s underrated character study ‘Vincent and Theo’ or even the surreal short in Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Dreams’ (featuring Martin Scorsese as Vincent) have delved into this material more deeply and meaningfully. This feels like more of the same, and the intriguing cast including the likes of Ronan and Chris O’Dowd aren’t even allowed to add much beyond monotone performances devoid of feeling.
Despite the unfortunate failings of the script and performances, Kobiela and Welchman have delivered a stunning tribute to Vincent van Gogh on a purely visual level. They go out of their way to find a way for scenes to incorporate every painting, and there’s a certain magic to watching them spring so vividly to life in the painterly form that they were created. It almost makes you yearn for a more abstract short film in the same style, using the images without the burden of storytelling, or perhaps a completely different story that weaves together the iconic paintings without bio-pic trappings. Regardless, that’s not what we got. We got ‘Loving Vincent’, an extraordinary visual achievement but just a serviceable van Gogh bio. At least the eye candy here is worth the price of admission.