Like an overly zealous parent desperate to show off its child, Loving Vincent begins with the boast that it took nearly a decade for 125 artists to complete the 62,450 paintings that make up the film. To be fair, Loving Vincent is committed to its gimmick, and the sheer artistic effort put into the film is undoubtedly impressive, if totally unnecessary. The film’s creative process, however, is the only remarkable thing about it – and the filmmakers will have learnt the hard way that there’s a reason we don’t animate oil paintings.
The fact is that Van Gogh’s original masterworks make no sense in accord with traditional cinematic techniques. Dialogue-heavy scenes comprised of close up shots, for example, butcher the compositional aspect of the artist’s work; sweeping camera movements over oil painted landscapes expose their innate flatness; animating character movement distractingly blurs the space around the actors. In fact, the jerky look of the rotoscope technique results in the whole film looking like an elongated video game cutscene – specifically, like a cutscene from L.A. Noire.
Yes, bafflingly, Loving Vincent is a detective story. One year after Van Gogh’s suicide, Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) is tasked with delivering the painter’s last letter to his brother, Theo. Hearing contradictory reports of Van Gogh’s death, Roulin takes it upon himself to find out what really happened. The detective act is ridiculous enough in principle, but it’s made worse by Douglas Booth’s dreadful performance, which comes complete with an unexplained and unconvincing ‘mockney’ accent. It’s implied that Roulin is a violent alcoholic, but any decent characterisation is abandoned in favour of giving Van Gogh himself (Robert Gulaczyk) more screen time. Not that the film gets under the artist’s skin either – even the infamous ear-cutting incident is only briefly alluded to.
Having transformed the story of an artist’s tragic suicide resulting from mental health problems into a whodunit, Loving Vincent has to quickly backtrack, mostly owing to the fact that Van Gogh did, in fact, kill himself. The conclusion settled on is an exercise in mythmaking: understandable given the love the filmmakers must have for the painter, although totally undeserved from a narrative perspective. An animated Van Gogh film could have been interesting as a viral short, but as a murder mystery feature it’s a bit of a slog. A film noir in the style of Edward Hopper, on the other hand… now there’s a film I’d like to see.
Image: BreakThru Films