(2017—Directors: Dorota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman)
(would be lower if not for the animation)
(out of 5 stars)
“He struggled to be what they wanted him to be.” — Père Tanguy (John Sessions) to Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) on the late Vincent Van Gogh
Potential spoilers below
The 2010s have seen several cinematic ventures that one can say embody the words “bold”, “audacious”, “revolutionary”, and “genius”. 2011 saw an old-school, Hollywood-style silent film (The Artist) win the Best Picture Oscar and gross over $130 million worldwide. 2012 saw a musical whose singing was recorded live on the set (Les Miserables) rather than dubbed. The Sundance Film Festival of 2013 saw the premiere of a dark and trippy psychological fantasy shot at Disney resorts and edited to avoid all visual and audial copyright strikes (Escape From Tomorrow), thus paralyzing the legal might of the global media goliath. A year later, that same festival saw the premiere of a coming-of-age drama shot over twelve years (Boyhood). Writer-directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman (also producing) sought to join this club when they teamed up with Piotr Dominiak to deliver a tribute to Vincent Van Gogh comprising entirely of oil-painted frames. While the animation effort on display is an undeniable technical and artistic feat, the script and resulting performances struggle to rise to the momentous occasion.
It is 1891—one year after Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh (Robert Gulaczyk) succumbed to a supposedly self-inflicted gunshot wound in Auvers-sur-Oise, France. Postmaster Roulin (Chris O’Dowd, Channel 4’s The IT Crowd, HBO’s Girls) commissions his son Armand (Douglas Booth, Noah, The Riot Club) to deliver Vincent’s last letter to his brother, Theo Van Gogh. He discovers from Père Tanguy (John Sessions, Florence Foster Jenkins, Mr. Holmes), Van Gogh’s paint supplier, that Theo had died of syphilis just six months after his brother’s death. Tanguy, along with Armand’s Postmaster father, speculate the true circumstances of Van Gogh’s death. With little direction in his own life at the moment, Armand travels to Auvers-sur-Oise, the home of Dr. Paul Gachet (Jerome Flynn, HBO’s Game of Thrones), his sheltered daughter Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn), his housekeeper Louise (Helen McCrory, the last three Harry Potter films), local inn proprietress Adeline (Eleanor Tomlinson, BBC1’s Poldark), and an unnamed local boatman (Aidan Turner, BBC1’s Poldark, The Hobbit trilogy). Armand interviews these key figures and painting subjects in Van Gogh’s life, hoping to learn the truth about the artist’s untimely demise.
Loving Vincent is the unprecedented cinematic event of 2017 and it is easy to see why. Through an auditioning process, directors Dorota Kobiela, producer-director Hugh Welchman, and head of painting animation Piotr Dominiak gathered 125 of the best Van Gogh-styled oil painters to paint the project’s 65,000 frames. The finished animation is a sight to behold, especially considering the $5.5 million (£3.8 million) production budget (compared to the $100+ million production budgets of major American animated films). Sure, the rotoscoping effect with the live action actors—originally shot by Tristan Oliver and Łukasz Żal (Ida)—can appear at odds with the post-Impressionist backgrounds. One can discern, moreover, the obvious changes as each frame shifts to the next. These do not take away from the utter audacity that possessed the filmmakers to undertake this tribute to Vincent Van Gogh. The whole concept of Loving Vincent reaches that level of genius that makes one think, “Why hasn’t anyone done this before?” Reaching audiences with this Van Gogh tribute required such innovation and Kobiela, Welchman, Dominiak, and their team generated it.
I regret that I cannot say the same for the story the revolutionary animation serves.
Behind all the painted frames composed with great toil and passion lies a feeble and meandering whydunnit storyline (co-penned by Kobiela, Welchman, and Polish poet and writer Jacek Dehnel). It lacks urgency and a conspiratorial agenda about the final word on Van Gogh’s untimely death to commit to. Armand’s whole private-eye venture feels unmotivated beyond his father’s bidding and because he has nothing better to do. It does not help that lead actor Nicholas Booth lacks the star power needed to help his turn as Armand boost the plot along. I so struggled to invest in Armand’s quest that I came close to dozing off about one-third of the way into the runtime. The technical achievement can only carry Loving Vincent so far, especially when its screenplay infuses into the ensemble the initial, and then diminishing, enthusiasm of players in a tableau scene. The result is an emotional journey of valleys with only a few short peaks from whenever the filmmakers recreate Van Gogh paintings.
Fortunately, Kobiela, Welchman, and Dehnel’s script is serviceable enough to avoid undoing the painstaking work of Dominiak’s team of painters. The story of Loving Vincent’s may underwhelm, but that has little effect on how the film and its animation technique will stand out for some time in the history of cinema. Kobiela and Welchman may not have been the best storytellers for this project, but they do deserve credit as the latest pioneers of animation. I look forward to the next oil-painted animated film, praying that the typewriter and the brushes are operated by different, but equally-visionary, sets of hands.
(Parental Note: Loving Vincent has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA “for mature thematic elements, some violence, sexual material, and smoking.” It has also been rated 12 by the BBFC for “suicide theme” and “infrequent moderate sex [and] injury detail”.)