Written By: Dorota Kobiela / Hugh Welchman / Jacek Dehnel
Directed By: Dorota Kobiela / Hugh Welchman
Produced By: BreakThru Productions / Trademark Films
Distributed By: Good Deed Entertainment
Running Time: 91 mins
Year Released: 2017
Loving Vincent, touted by its producers as the world’s first fully-painted feature film, has been described in every other review online as that most sentimental of creative cliches: a labour of love. For once though, there just isn’t a better label for it. This 90-minute Polish-English tribute to Vincent Van Gogh, whose personal life - and suicide - provided just as much enigma as his artwork, is nothing more than a movie-length tribute to his post-impressionist genius. It tries to fool you into thinking it’s more than that, disguising this adulation through a loose plot focusing on the ambiguity of his death. Vincent was said to have shot himself in the chest with a revolver on the 27th of July 1890, while out painting in a field surrounding the then-idyllic confines of Auvers-sur-Oise, France. He died from the wound two days later with his brother, Theo, at his bedside. But, to the clear gain of the scriptwriters at play here, no gun was ever found. It’s a speculative detail that critics might say makes for a weak excuse to build what ultimately amounts to a no-frills murder-mystery upon. They wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, either. But it’s obvious that when considering the production behind this maverick, artistically challenging project, all Loving Vincent was looking for was a pretense to build a visually tantalizing experience around. And, with the help of a strong cast, a beautifully introspective soundtrack and unprecedented animation techniques, it most definitely succeeds in achieving that.
For Loving Vincent is essentially a Van Gogh painting come to life, with the aid of a few rotoscoped actors, computer graphics and a whole lot of graft. In total, it’s a project that has required over seven years and a total of 65,000 frames, oil-painted in Van Gogh’s inimitable style by over 100 artists, to see the light of day. And even then, the film still required funding on behalf of the Polish Film Institute to even get rolling, as well as a successful Kickstarter (don’t they all these days?). It’s a living testament to just how difficult it is for a film to be made purely on artistic ambition alone these days. Many don’t even make it without the help of a big Hollywood company willing to provide the bankroll, so long as the original idea gets downsized in the name of commercial gain. In that way at least, Loving Vincent is very much a triumph for film-making - even if it does also convey the flip-side of such creative abandon. Bold as its brushstrokes are, they still only cover a plot that, as previously mentioned, is a little too thin to fit the whole canvas.
YouTube: Loving Vincent
It’s effective enough in the outset, though. Loving Vincent brings together a number of participants from Van Gogh’s portrait works for a fleeting bit of whodunnit that wouldn’t feel too out of place on Radio Two’s afternoon schedule. In the Southern French town of Arles, postmaster Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd) has a difficult letter to deliver - difficult in the sense that it is from Vincent (Robert Gulaczyk), recently deceased, to be delivered to his brother Theo (Cezary Lukaszewicz), in Paris. Unable to make the trip himself, he enlists the help of his son Armand (Douglas Booth) to locate Theo’s whereabouts and deliver it to him in person. While he may have nothing better to do, Armand is still reluctant to take on the task. Van Gogh’s harrowing final days in Arles resulted in the artist’s mental breakdown and the severing of the troubled painter’s own left ear - an event that saw him committed to the local asylum. Cynical as he is about the worth in delivering a mad Dutch painter’s final correspondence, Armand nevertheless gives in to his father’s insistence and sets off on his journey.
Naturally, this skepticism soon gives into curiosity. Through his path to hopefully finding Theo, Armand begins to meet a number of Vincent’s former acquaintances, and hears their stories about the man. Through the accounts of his Parisian paint supplier (Pere Tanguy, played by John Sessions) and eventually the villagers of Auvers - where Vincent took up residence, living in the abode of Dr. Gachet (Jerome Flynn) before his death - a picture of the artist begins to unravel that lays both his talents, and his vulnerabilities, bare. What once began as an arduous courier trip to the French capital winds up as a grander mystery surrounding the reality of Vincent’s death, and the truth of it all seemingly lies hidden in a web of deceit. Loving Vincent certainly does throw in all the long-trodden soundbites about the man to make this riddle seem gripping, too. Which is a pity in a sense, because if you’ve ever been in the presence of an art museum curator for long enough, you’re likely to already know all the revelatory tidbits that the film attempts to pin its plot upon.
Still, its impressive cast makes the most of it all. As Armand, Douglas Booth provides the catalyst to keep the movie driving forward, which is no easy task given how frequently the astonishing animation pulls you away from its meat. From feckless errand boy at the start, to fervent investigator at the end, Booth gives Armand a compellingly rogue-ish demeanour - one that makes both his rough edges and his eventually unyielding determination to find the truth about Vincent believable, and engaging. The film goes out of its way to place a sole focus on his character, with most scene transitions either focusing on Armand pursuing a new trail, or back to old faces to squeeze out more information. Thus, it’s a very good thing that Booth manages to connect well with practically everyone he’s on screen with. This is particularly the case with Eleanor Tomlinson, playing the daughter of Auvers’ innkeeper, Adeline Ravoux - a girl with so much idealistic exuberance and praise for Van Gogh and his work, you’d think she’d have married him if she had the chance. Together, the pair strike up an unusual partnership in Armand’s search for the facts, and their conflicting natures create an enjoyable dynamic to keep the film from completely falling into plodding, artful daydreaming. Jerome Flynn, a man I’ve grown so used to playing hard men in the likes of Game of Thrones, Black Mirror and beyond, also puts in a shift to lift the film out of a lull during the middle. He comes in with a fairly softer cameo here as the initially elusive Dr. Gachet, one of the few people who’d been with Van Gogh up to the hours before his death. His own head-to-head with Armand provides the climax of the film, and it’s a worthy one that might not necessarily put you on the edge of your seat, but certainly adds a good deal of last-minute suspense, and an ultimately tragic explanation for Vincent’s self-inflicted demise.
Unfortunately, to get there you have to go through an awfully trite middle. The cast can’t have had an easy job living out Vincent’s world given the fairly rigid script handed to them. Loving Vincent’s flow is largely confined to a repetitive pattern of having Armand visit a new character, and then have them go off on monologues about how they knew him. While the writing itself is by no means bad, it’s almost comical how heavy-handedly it treats such moments. Once you see a sudden flush of black and white filling the screen, you know you’re in for a lengthy flashback. At best, it’s a tad disingenuous - at worst, it’s outright monotonous, breaking up the gentle yet focused pace the film sets out with. It’s all the more disappointing considering how the vivid artwork has such an easy time evoking drama without ever needing to say anything. All too often, Loving Vincent’s visuals brightly show the kind of emotion that its dialogue merely tells of.
And with visuals this good, who really needs a plot when everything looks and feels so utterly sublime? The toil of Loving Vincent’s artists and producers - a committee headed by Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman and Sean Bobbitt of BreakThru Films, plus Ivan Mactaggart of Trademark Films - has resulted in both a masterpiece and a milestone in the field of animation. There are so many references to Van Gogh’s original works - not just his portraits or his brushstrokes, but also his more iconic landscape depictions - and the cohesive whole of every single hand-painted frame is not only enthused with their magic, but also their emotional energy and dynamism. This sense of wonder is also imbued into the movie’s soundtrack - a simple, yet rousing collection of piano and soft string pieces that feel just as critical to the proceedings as everything else. As an experience of both sound and image, Loving Vincent will certainly take the viewer’s breath away - even if its story itself comes up feeling hollow.
But in a way, maybe it couldn’t be anything else. Given the subject matter, it might have felt obvious for Loving Vincent’s creators to utilize a tagline straight out of one of Vincent’s letters to his brother: “The truth is, we cannot speak other than by our paintings.”. But through the sum of this luscious expose on a brilliant yet affected man, it also comes off as rather poignant. In the film’s closing scene of Armand reflecting on his journey with his father as they gaze out over the Starry Night Under The Rhone, or a moment in which Van Gogh eyes his reflection on a rippling bowl of water, the message is obvious: sometimes words cannot fully convey what life gives us. Thankfully Loving Vincent, shallow as it may be at times, has these moments of serenity in abundance.
Loving Vincent is currently showing in various independent theaters across the US. Details on which ones can be found here. I personally caught it at the Laemmle Royal Theatre in Brentwood, Los Angeles.
Also, UK folks, take heart - it's also scheduled for a release in theaters on the 13th October.
Media utilized in article is property of: Breakthru Films / Trademark Films