Loving Vincent review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
There’s huge ambition within the very concept of Loving Vincent. Perhaps more ambition than any other animated film of the 21st century. For telling the story of Vincent van Gogh’s death, directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman wanted to tell it with oil paintings, where every single frame of the film would be painted on a canvas with the medium. It’s an original and thoughtful approach, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. But I regret to say I appreciate the film more for the experiment than the film itself.
In truth, I can see traces of other animated films with the use of conceiving the motion through rotoscoped footage. You’ve most likely seen this style of tracing over live-action footage for Richard Linklater’s animated films of Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. To the films credit, there’s an astonishing amount of details in these thousands upon thousands of oil paintings, going so far as photorealism in both its depiction of van Gogh’s classic paintings and matching the actors recorded for their roles. It’s so detailed at times that I questioned the lack of the more painterly definements in several scenes.
The story is told Citizen Kane style. Vincent (Robert Gulaczyk) has passed away and Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) wants to know why. He speaks with everyone who knew Vincent, from the asylum-housing Dr. Paul Gachet (Jerome Flynn) and the proprietress Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tomlinson). He investigates everything around Auvers-sur-Oise, hearing stories of those who knew him best. The scenes of Roulin’s questioning and journey through the beautiful countryside are all depicted in gorgeous colors that use the oil painting medium well. The flashbacks of Vincent’s life, however, are painted in stark black and white.
And here is where the use of oil paintings become questionable. When in color, the film is a wonder to watch as van Gogh’s famous paintings come to life in gorgeous staging. I can only imagine how tough it was to shoot these scenes on film, but seeing them painted and animated adds a whole new level of wonder. But when in black and white, that painterly quality is lost and the more realistic details take over, to the point where I questioned what the point was in such staging. Don’t get me wrong; these scenes have their moments of challenge and beauty as well, as in one scene where Vincent looks at his reflection in rippling water.
I found it hard to watch the film as more than the gimmick itself. Because, let’s face it, the biggest selling point is the animation itself. The ambition is so amazing that when the film settles into its style and turns a little too easy and cathartic in its tribute to Vincent, I felt bad for not feeling something more for a film that was fueled by a passion for painting. Maybe I’m just not as engrossed by the works of van Gogh to truly appreciate a tireless work to take his craft and speed it up for an entire film.
The film is by no means a bore, presenting decent acting and staging that could make the film a competent drama without the animation angle. But only a decent story for such ground-breaking animation feels like an ill-suited pairing. My thanks to the painters who worked tirelessly on this effort and turned out something astonishingly gorgeous, even if it didn’t come in service of the best film.