Loving Vincent, an animated production from directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchma, has two things going for it. The first, of course, is the irresistible story of Vincent Van Gogh — the troubled artist whose final 8 years of life produced erratic behavior, some of the most important works of the 19th century, and only one sold painting. The other is its visual style, which Kobiela and Welchman achieve by shooting live action footage, and then projecting it onto canvases, on which a team of artists paint with oil, in the style of Van Gogh. As a result, Loving Vincent offers something unique to animated cinema: the story of an investigation into the death of Vincent Van Gogh, told in the artist’s visual language.
It’s a can’t-miss idea that does not miss, but it doesn’t really satisfy either. While Van Gogh’s biography retains its tragedy and beauty, the quest narrative / murder mystery format employed by Kobiela and Welchman does little to augment the story. The film feels like video game, in which our protagonist — a postmaster’s son (Douglas Booth), charged by his father with delivering Van Gogh’s last letter to his brother and patron Theo — is sent to one character from another. After a few bits of choppy dialogue reveals each new character’s quirk, she or he launches into a soliloquy about Van Gogh (Robert Gulaczyk), filling in a few details about the painter’s life before hitting a question that sends the postmaster’s son on a new quest to launch a new info dump.
Despite this mechanical structure, the character actors — including Chris O’Dowd, Saoirse Ronan, and Game of Thrones’s Jerome Flynn— dig into their monologues and give meaty recitations. However, the film’s visual style here handicaps its actors, blurring their initially expressive eyes and mouths with lines that replicate Van Gogh’s thick brush strokes, and losing their big gestures among the dark black lines.
Take the scene in which the postmaster’s son interviews Doctor Mazery (Bill Thomas). As opposed to the more ellusive Doctor Gachet (Flynn), Van Gogh’s closest living confident and the one who pronounced his death a suicide, Mazery is sprightly and ebbubilant as he argues that Van Gogh was murdered. Thomas puts in a loud and corporeal performance, and the yellow and blues coloring the conversation compliment its vibrancy, but the shuddering effect caused by the brush strokes shifting in each frame mutes the Doctor’s actions.
Ultimately, this effect renders the film too busy to be effective. Van Gogh’s expressive line work lent energy to his static images, but when the pictures move, the viewer’s eye cannot follow the picture to any stable focal point. A few establishing shots capitalize on the filmmaker’s technique, showing children playing along a village street or presenting a church in imposing black and grey. But the directors often cut too quickly to a new scene or character, forcing viewers to orient themselves in a whole new painting. It lacks the patience to match Van Gough’s contemplative tone.
With only a 94 minute runtime, Loving Vincent is a worth watching as an interesting experiment, even if it isn’t a wholly successful experiment.