A nearly unforgivable missed opportunity in bringing van Gogh’s paintings to life only to relegate the artist to the past tense.
Loving Vincent, the first fully hand-painted film, is both a technical triumph and a storytelling blunder. Taking years to create in collaboration with well over 100 painters, the film reflects on the last years of life and the untimely death of the hugely influential Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. Each of its 65,000 frames consists of an individual oil painting on canvas rendered in the distinctively thick brush strokes that the post-impressionist artist was known for. The film is populated by figures from some of van Gogh’s portraits and, in many cases, incorporates his most famous landscapes into the scenery. Though it’s a feast for the eyes, Loving Vincent’s lack of substance ultimately makes its high-art approach appear ostentatious.
Writer-directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman set their film one year after van Gogh’s untimely death. Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), the son of a postman who appears in one of the artist’s portraits, attempts to deliver a final letter from Vincent to his brother Theo, only to discover that Theo has also died. Armand proceeds to wander about Vincent’s old stomping grounds, even lodging in the same room where the painter died, as he tries to come to terms with the mysterious circumstances of the death of a man who he recognizes as a genius. In addition to infamously cutting off his own ear and giving it to a woman, van Gogh’s struggle with mental illness apparently led him to shoot himself in the stomach, resulting in a festering wound that took two days to kill him. As the only discernible tension that arises throughout a film that otherwise simply portrays a man walking around and talking to people, Loving Vincent also touches upon the theory that perhaps van Gogh was shot by someone else.
But this film is no murder mystery, and Loving Vincent doesn’t seem intent on convincing us that the gunshot wound was, in fact, anything but self-inflicted. Instead, the film’s focus remains on Armand moving among vivid living tableaux and running into various people who all inevitably have a story to tell about Vincent and his strange death. The information is too often presented as random factoids rather than anything nuanced or incredibly insightful. It’s intriguing that van Gogh didn’t pick up a brush until he was 28 and, through a workmanlike nine-to-five painting schedule, was incredibly prolific for a career spanning less than a decade, but we aren’t offered much of a view into the broader scope of his life.
Though the sumptuous, hand-painted film is visually mesmerizing at first, even this artful approach wears thin when stretched to 90 minutes. The film so clearly captures the likenesses of the actors involved—particularly Chris O’Dowd as the amply-bearded Postman Roulin and Helen McCrory as Louise Chevalier—that its technique at times feels similar to the rotoscoping found in other talky films such as Waking Life, dulling some of its novelty. And while on the surface it’s fun to see famous works like “The Starry Night” or “Wheatfield with Crows” in action, these dreamlike paintings are incorporated into the film’s settings so literally that they become almost mundane. Worst of all, since the main narrative takes place after the artist’s death, we only see and hear Vincent (Robert Gulacyzk) in flashback scenes that are often intruded upon by voiceover, robbing the film of its immediacy. There’s a nearly unforgivable missed opportunity in bringing van Gogh’s paintings to life only to relegate the artist to the past tense.