I’m no art aficionado — my conversation on the impressionists extends only so far as I can compare them to my beloved musical impressionists, like Satie, Debussy, and Ravel — but I have immense admiration for the work of Vincent van Gogh. His paintings may be impressionist in style, but feel as though they approach the painfully intimate in scope and the cosmic in spirit. It’s a cliché to say that the style appears senseless or jejune when viewed in close detail, but accumulates to an engaging rendering of a scene when viewed as a whole, yet it’s that exact fact and quality of reality — both the reality of the soul and of the cosmos — that van Gogh’s art reflects. An emotion or an observed corner of the universe are not likely to make sense when considered in isolation, but can form the part of a revelation of a greater truth when an artist interknits and interworks them into a comprehensive and beautiful creation. And that sense of both exquisite elevation and baffled despair are all too present and immediately apparent in the story of van Gogh’s life.
Loving Vincent presents only pieces of the story of that life, and only in flashbacks. The main action takes place a year after his death, when Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd), the postman who befriended Vincent van Gogh, comes by a letter that the painter posted to his brother, Theo, and tasks his son, Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), with delivering it to its intended recipient. Mingled with Armand’s task, and presented to him by Joseph together with the letter, is the mystery of how Vincent could swerve from what he himself had described as a “calm and normal” mood to suicide in a matter of a few weeks. Vincent’s apparent suicide has cast a gloomy pall over the people to whom and places to which he was once familiar, just as he had lit them up during his life. Armand’s journey to deliver the letter shifts its focus into finding the answer to Vincent’s death, which transforms his route into one of discovery of Vincent’s life, who he was and what he contributed to the world. It brings him into contact with a host of characters, all taken from actual accounts in van Gogh’s letters and diaries, or depictions in his paintings, and played by a roster of prestigious arthouse favourites: Saoirse Ronan, John Sessions, Helen McCrory, Jerome Flynn, and Eleanor Tomlinson round out the cast.
I was tremendously impressed throughout Loving Vincent’s 90 minutes by the artists’ technical achievement in rendering an animated film meant to closely resemble van Gogh’s paintings in its visual style. Every frame was painted by hand by classical painters, rather than traditional animators (and the film is reportedly made up of 65,000 frames in total). In a sense — and a somewhat transfixing one at that — you see the paintings and the animation unfold in front of you, as the painters animate a shot by pulling their brushstrokes across a single image in moving patterns, photographing it after each iteration. It has the traditional animated effect of making the painted images look like they’re moving, but is shown at a slower rate than other animated films so that the technical work of slightly modifying each frame in a shot can be seen more clearly. As a friend who saw the film with me remarked, one of the pleasures of the method was that the slightly divergent styles of individual artists could be spotted in the different ways they imitated van Gogh scenes and brushstrokes. The mere fact of the film’s visual details adds a significance to them that almost overshadows the drama of the plot. The actors’ scenes were shot on a green screen, onto which the painters’ frames were projected; when the processes of editing were completed, the filmmakers projected the whole film onto blank canvases, over which the painters painted each entire frame. The film took four years to complete, and the painstaking work that went into it is pretty much visible on the screen as you watch it.
Because that effort was so great, and the devotion of each of the filmmakers and artists involved must have been unfailing, and both that effort and devotion are conspicuous throughout the film, it may seem ungracious to bring criticisms of their work and the final product wrought from it. The reason the film was made and made in this way seems obvious to me: The filmmakers wished to present a tribute to an artist whose work they loved and whose biography they found alluring and worthwhile of a full-length drama. Yet this tribute they have brought, while stunningly picturesque and wholly fascinating, falls short of what I would think of as a triumphant and beautiful creation in itself. Faithful devotion to something — and I consider art as worthy and noble an object of devotion as any more ostensibly serious cause — may awaken new and furious modes of creation in an artist, or may cause something to seize up, to dull the spark, or to negate the challenges and risks that creation poses to that object. Hugh Welchman, one of the directors of Loving Vincent, stated that one of the bases on which they hired painters for the film was that they did not want painting animators with “personalised styles”. I discussed van Gogh’s style with my companion, who is a visual artist himself in several media, and we agreed that his paintings hardly need to be modified and animated to represent movement; the sense of movement is already present in his paintings, not only implied but evoked. What I suggested is that it may have been even more authentic and dutiful a tribute if the image in each shot had been a mere stationary painting, without changing brushstrokes and without explicit movement, so that we could examine each detail of the painting more closely as a voiceover dialogue from whichever character’s face is shown in the shot would play on the soundtrack.
Like too many other movies about real-life artistic geniuses — Amadeus, say, or Mr Turner — Loving Vincent relies too heavily on the actual work of the artist to demonstrate their genius; they invoke their great spirit and creative powers, but don’t evoke them. There’s no questioning, illumination, critique, historical appreciation, social or political perspective, emotional insight, metaphysical abstraction, philosophical contemplation, or perspicacious deconstruction of the work at hand. Admiration of van Gogh can be found and achieved in any gallery or collection showing his work. An original work in response to it needs to add, and risk taking away. Van Gogh himself is a regrettable absence in the film, even if the filmmakers have taken pains to depict him according to the letter of actual historical fact.
Loving Vincent bears a striking resemblance to another lauded animated film based on true stories, which was also an Oscar nominee in its year (for Best Foreign Language Film) and which I saw recently: Waltz With Bashir, which follows its director, Ari Folman, in a more or less non-fictional account of his attempts to remember his own experiences in the 1982 Lebanon War. In it, the lead character travels through different countries to speak to a varied selection of individuals about a series of events and a specific incident — about the state of things and the state of himself, in effect — piecing together their diverse perspectives to grope at the answers he’s searching for. With a number of atrocities and human rights abuses involved, the tone was much heavier in that film, but the mood was similarly morose. But the outcome was totally different: Where Folman seems almost to throw his hands in the air, and declare that the final answers he comes across are not answers, because there are no answers at all, Loving Vincent does not despair; it asserts that the passage of discovery of an artist is not in demystifying his death or any other simple biographical details, but in learning the essences of his life. The dull and clichéd drama is no major discomfort to sit through, and its resolution is, at the very least, superficially pleasing. But the mundanity of its processes and its insights is only masked by the visual display at hand, not transformed or elevated by it. The experience of watching Loving Vincent can be suitable simulated by looking through recreations or records of his work, recalling what you can of the tragedy of his later life and death, while playing sombre minimalist music on an ambient sound system. Perhaps it’d be an even greater experience, as you arrive at your own personal and pointed views of his life and art, and of Life and Art, in response to his work.