Subject and form are a perfect match in the Oscar-nominated film “Loving Vincent,” which is animated with 65,000 oil-painted, hand-painted frames. The film explores Vincent van Gogh’s life, centering around his death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 37. This extraordinary film is a gift to art lovers, but its achievements are more artistic than cinematic.
The film follows the journey, after van Gogh’s death, of Armand Roulin, the son of a postmaster in Arles who was the subject of several van Gogh paintings. Charged by his father with delivering a letter to van Gogh’s brother, Armand travels from town to town, interviewing people who came into contact with van Gogh. This format is entirely too convenient to function as proper storytelling, and the series of interviews feels just like that, and eventually becomes routine and tedious, despite the colorful spectacle of the film itself.
Using the same style of animating that you might remember from Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life,” real actors perform not just the voices, but perform the film itself, which was then painted over by hand. Chris O’Dowd plays the postmaster and Saoirse Ronan plays Marguerite, the daughter of a doctor who Armand believes holds the key to uncovering the truth about van Gogh’s death. Although van Gogh lived long enough after his fatal injury to claim responsibility for shooting himself, Armand and his father suspect foul play.
The visual greatly outweighs the narrative and, while I marveled at many individual scenes, the cumulative effect is somewhat inert and dull. Each character is introduced in a wooden way, as Armand simply goes from one character to the next. It is like an utterly beautiful, highbrow version of the game “Guess Who.” The story switches to a sketchier black-and-white style for flashbacks to the time when van Gogh was alive, a nice device that keeps the story clear and adds another beautiful element.
It is hard to argue with the thrill of seeing Armand, wearing the same dazzling yellow jacket he wears in a portrait painted in real life by the tormented master, come to life, even if his role in the story is reminiscent of James Lipton in “Inside the Actors Studio,” a bit too expository to really blend into a film. All of the obviously tremendous effort that went into “Loving Vincent” seems to have gone into the painting, and the skimpy script wears thin, despite the glory of its execution. Perhaps the filmmakers were too deeply in thrall to their subject to get the proper distance to create a dramatic story. What we get instead is an emotional and beautiful tribute.
This animated film is wonderful for fans of Vincent van Gogh, but not ultimately successful in telling a good story. Everything is there, all the stuff of the van Gogh legend — his ear, his sunflowers and artist cameos from Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and others. The thing about van Gogh is that he is so universally beloved and so exposed at this point, “Loving Vincent” is in danger of becoming the latest in a long line of museum gift shop souvenirs of his unquestionably beautiful works. The technique is gorgeous, but the story is not dynamic, and while the animators succeeded in capturing the drama of van Gogh’s work, the writers failed to express the drama of van Gogh’s life.
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