What distinguishes great movies from mediocre ones, among many other things of course, is the love with which the film was made — corny, I admit, but a testament to the labour of filmmakers and artists impassioned by their own ideas and creativity and what could come of each and both. One such example is Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s inspired love letter to Vincent Van Gogh, aptly entitled Loving Vincent, the first ever feature film made entirely out of oil paintings.
Wishing to explore the life of the renowned artist in a way that would pay homage to him, Kobiela and Welchman resorted to crowd funding to financially support their idea of making an animated biopic using oil paintings only. The campaign quickly received major support and the necessary funds were acquired and production began. With over 100 artists participating in the project, 65,000 frames were created for the film, and the result was a spellbinding visual experience of cinema.
A year after Vincent Van Gogh’s sudden death, Armand Roulin, son of the local postman, is tasked with delivering Van Gogh’s final letter to his brother, Theo. Reluctant and bitter, Roulin sets out on a journey that leads him to Auvers-sure-Oise, the residence of Dr. Gachet, Van Gogh’s doctor, and the place Van Gogh took his final breath. Douglas Booth, Jerome Flynn, Saoirse Ronan, Aiden Turner, Chris O’dowd, and Eleanor Tomlinson brilliantly lend their voices.
There is no question that Loving Vincent looks absolutely triumphant. It’s unlike any animated film that has ever been made. By virtue of the conversation between its moving score and form alone, a sense of warmth bounces off the frames, inviting its viewers into the world that Van Gogh created with his art. From the landscapes to the cities, the viewer gets a sense of life through the late artist’s eyes in the months leading up to his death. In what can only be described as a dance, the transitions from frame to frame are so smoothly done, and the immaculate detailing in each sequence is a thing to marvel at. If ever there is a time to perpetuate a trend in filmmaking, it is now. Oil paintings are a stunning and exciting new way to present cinema.
Aside from the film’s visuals, the moment in which it is set is endlessly interesting. Often times with biopics about late artists, the film is told from their point of view and usually traces their life beginning to end, but by choosing to focus on such a specific window of time — the few months Van Gogh spent with Dr. Gachet — and telling the story from such a unique angle — the unassuming son of Van Gogh’s trusted postman — serves the film well and demands the attention of the viewer.
That being said, as much as I would have liked to stop there, the film is definitely quite flawed in terms of the direction the plot takes. From the very beginning, Loving Vincent presents itself as a prime opportunity to study the effects of the sudden absence of a loved one; the void left behind by a person and how to reconcile with that. What could have been an arresting exploration of the grief (thank to the form) Van Gogh was feeling before purportedly taking his own life, but more so of the aftermath of the artist’s parting on his family and friends, suddenly becomes a wasted opportunity. Instead, Loving Vincent turns into a whodunit mystery crime saga in search of the truth behind the last months of Van Gogh’s life. And while that, in its own rite, can be interesting, it wasn’t handled very well. Sequences of scenes seemed to repeat themselves quite often in that Roulin would meet a new character who would give him some insight into Van Gogh’s personality and state during those months, then point him to a new person with a controversial theory. This cycle changed the identity of the film and clashed with the form, never quite recovering from the lack of reconciliation between the two.
Despite that, however, the film’s merits should not be forgotten, and its pioneering efforts compensate where it suffers plot wise — I don’t think one can watch the movie and not have a pleasant experience on some level. If the palpable love the filmmakers have for Van Gogh and his artistry is any measure, then Loving Vincent is fantastic for all intents and purposes. But looking at the films as a holistic work, as it should be viewed, it boasts potential for greatness, but never quite reaches the caliber of its main subject’s fleeting genius.