BFI London Film Festival: Loving Vincent

Loving Vincent
Loving Vincent
Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman
Starring Douglas Booth, Robert Gulaczyk, Saoirse Ronan, Chris O’Dowd and Aidan Turner
Screening at LFF October 10th, 2017
In UK Cinemas October 13th, 2017

by Richard Hamer

Seven years in production, requiring the talent of 115 artists, painting over 65,000 frames of footage across 900 canvases, Loving Vincent is one of the greatest technical achievements in cinematic history. This is not to be disputed. Every fact you learn of its creation beggars belief: The numbers involved dizzying and impossible; 5000 artists applied to work on the movie. All of the 200+ successful candidates had to be trained to paint like Van Gogh. The opening shot took 18 months to create. It is a product of artistic obsession that Vincent himself would have appreciated.

As a visual spectacle, it is like no other. In motion, one can see the individual brush marks – even the odd fingerprint – as the coming scene literally paints over the one before it. When the camera pans and zooms, the world continually re-draws and refocuses itself, like a fluid, living thing. Every subtlety of its live-action performances (from the likes of Douglas Booth, Saoirse Ronan and Chris O’Dowd) has been captured in the painting process; the merest flicker of the eyelid, the beginnings of a tear. While one can’t even begin to conceive of the effort involved in its creation, one can say with ease that – as a work of animation – it has been worth it.

That Loving Vincent is then such a disappointment as a film – as a story – is so crushing that you wish you could ignore it. Rather than a straight biopic, Loving Vincent instead opts for a kind of whodunit, following young Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) as he sets off to try and deliver the last letter of the recently deceased Van Gogh. Arriving at the town where he died, Armand questions the local characters, finding himself unexpectedly drawn into the mystery of Vincent’s death: Was it suicide – as the popular story goes – or was it something more sinister?

It is an unusual approach, but understandable (how Van Gogh died is the subject of debate, and contemporary accounts of his state of mind in those last days are as conflicted as the film depicts). In practice, though, it makes for a dour, plodding movie. While the visuals scream of life and freedom, the story is flat and dry, told largely through a series of methodical, passionless interviews. The dialogue is also problematic, at turns overly modern (jarring horribly with quotes directly from Van Gogh, which are lyrical and restrained), and at others reading like it has been dictated directly from the Wikipedia. One can say this: For a movie set only 6 months after his death, too many of the characters speak of him like they are in the 21st century – assured of his genius, and full of facts and dates about him to regurgitate at will.

And this is the great sadness of Loving Vincent. The creators obviously do love Vincent – they must do, to create a movie like this – but outside the visual realm, they struggle to articulate it; to explain why, in the end, Vincent Van Gogh matters. Their solution has been to focus on him in purely historical terms: Where he went and when, how he died and why. Which is fine, but it is also cold and impersonal. It is not how love is explained.

Vincent Van Gogh matters to me because to look at his work is the closest you can get to seeing into the heart of another person. He painted everyday things: His desk, his bed, his neighbors, his postman, the food he ate and the flowers outside his window. But every brush stroke is heavy with his thoughts of them, and his thoughts about himself. You can chart the history of a man, through how he saw the flowers.

That is my answer – it is not the answer, because of course there isn’t one. But I wish the makers of Loving Vincent had found their own, personal answer. This is a film you watch waiting for that moment when the revelations of its characters merge with the revolution in color that they inhabit, and together they create something abstract, something with feeling. But it never happens. Loving Vincent is a beautiful looking movie, but I felt precious little beauty within it.


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