By Libby Gandhi.
Vincent Van Gogh wrote that ‘we can only speak through our paintings’. Loving Vincent, a Van Gogh biopic and the world’s first fully painted feature film, takes that seriously. Directed and produced by Polish painter Dorota Kobiela and Oscar-winning British filmmaker Hugh Welchman, this labour of love is an impressive, albeit narratively unsatisfying, homage to the father of modern art.
The film takes place one year after Van Gogh’s death, as Armand – the Postman’s son – tries to deliver the painter’s final letter to his brother. Inspired by the theory that Van Gogh did not commit suicide, but was instead shot, the plot meanders between long monologues and irrelevant diversions as Armand attempts to discover the truth. The narrative ends abruptly and inconclusively, though in this biopic the plot is incidental.
Instead, the medium is the message. Loving Vincent uses stop-frame animation to bring 65, 000 frames of painted oil-on-canvas to life. Working from live action footage, the film took a team of 115 classically trained artists working the style of Van Gogh 5 years to complete. Scenes take their cues from Van Gogh’s paintings, as do the characters that inhabit them, and even the titles are painted. Framed in 4:3 aspect ratio, the film emulates a landscape-oriented painting.
The result has been deemed by some ‘jaw-droppingly beautiful’ (Film Journal International) and by others a ‘monomaniacal act of stylistic pedantry’ (The Guardian).
Watching Loving Vincent is certainly an intense experience. Van Gogh’s signature impasto technique limits depth-of-field to create a 2D effect, while a fauvistic grade dazzles the eyes. At moments, this works beautifully – stars and streetlights beat softly, scenes seamlessly melt into one another, and there are some wonderfully textured beards. As a moving feature film, however, the impressive concept becomes is a pulsating, quivering spectacle which acts as a barrier to audience immersion and compromises narrative quality. Black and white flashback scenes offer some respite from the relentless intensity of the screen, but these are few and far between.
Nevertheless, Loving Vincent has achieved international acclaim. It won the Audience Award at the 2017 Annecy International Animated Film Festival and enjoyed an 11-and-a-half-minute standing ovation. At the Shanghai International Film Festival, it was awarded a Golden Goblet for Best Animation film and at Vancouver it received ‘Most Popular International Feature’ – understandable responses given the monumental workload to needed create such an original film.
To conclude, what it achieves in style, Loving Vincent lacks in substance. But does that really matter? One gets the impression that Loving Vincent was never about telling the best story – there have already been three major Van Gogh biopics for that. Nor was it about creating a new painted genre. Instead, its purpose was as a tribute to ‘Vincent’. As such, it is unhelpful and inappropriate to judge it by regular criteria. For as a film of devotion, Loving Vincent is a hard-won and hypnotic success.