It’s near impossible to discuss the animated biopic Loving Vincent without focusing on the stunning visual achievement of its form. In a painstakingly meticulous animation process, the film combines rotoscoping technology with hand-painted, Impressionist oil paintings to provide a real, tangible texture to its morbid exploration of the final days of Vincent Van Gogh. The movie wants you to pay special attention to that process, opening with a title card that reads “The film you are about to see has been hand-painted by over 100 artists.” Between those painters, the two credited directors, the rotoscoped cast of in-the-flesh actors, and the film’s crowdfunding backers, Loving Vincent is a massive collaboration that finds entirely new avenues of expression in its visual form. As impressive as that visual achievement can be, however, it’s a shame that the film’s narrative is so creatively restricted. If the exact same script were presented as a live action production, this by-the-books biopic of the final days of a troubled artist would be more befitting of a BBC miniseries than an arthouse film, which points to there not being much substance here beyond the surface of its visual form.
In 1891, one year after Van Gogh’s death, a family friend is tasked to deliver a fundamentally undeliverable, posthumous letter to the artist’s brother. This mission of honoring a dead man’s request evolves into a kind of historical revisionism murder investigation that calls into question whether Van Gogh actually killed himself or if he was shot by a second party. Our makeshift sleuth (actually just a dutiful son of a postman) goes on a Magic Schoolbus-style tour of the various sets & characters that filled the frames of Van Gogh’s most infamous works. Just as the animation style approximates the Impressionism of Van Gogh’s brush, a series of black & white flashbacks emerge from these interviews to provide fractured sketches of who he was as a person (not unlike the structure of Citizen Kane). In a typifying line, one interviewee asks, “You want to know so much about his death, but that do you know of his life?” in-between the sweeping orchestral flashbacks that eat up half the runtime. The film is a re-examination of Van Gogh’s life & art both in its story & its form, but ultimately doesn’t have much to say except that he was a deeply depressed man who made beautiful paintings, something we all already knew.
Like Russian Ark, Loving Vincent is a stunning visual achievement that will prove useful as a classroom tool that actually holds students’ attention. Unlike Russian Ark, it could have used more imagination & lyricism in its content to match the intensity of its form. There’s a mind-blowing animated work to be made out of this oil painting rotoscoping process now that the idea’s out there, but much like how The Jazz Singer was never going to be the all-time greatest example of the talkies, Loving Vincent isn’t representative of the extremes where that technique could be pushed. The texture of the canvas surfaces & malleability of reality (especially in the way movement leaves a barely-perceptible trail) are promising of a strong future for this aesthetic, but Loving Vincent is a little too muted as a biopic to experiment with its full possibilities. There are obvious limitations to this visual style: the bizarre intrusion of recognizable faces like Chris O’Dowd & Saoirse Ronan, the internet cheesiness of seeing a Starry Night dorm room poster come to life, the eye’s search for details in texture while essentially running through an art gallery at full speed, etc. Mostly, though, Loving Vincent is an admirably ambitious proof-of-concept visual project that opens the door to a new mode of artistic expression: a brand new, but paradoxically traditionalist tool in the animator’s arsenal. Its worth is entirely tied to the audacity of its form.