It took more than 100 artists more than five years to create the 853 oil paintings that make up the animated biopic Loving Vincent. The film tells us all about the process in the opening credits, as if daring me not to write a good review. And listen, it’s not like I don’t feel guilty! We’re all aware by now of what a tremendous effort it took to bring to life 65,000 frames of Vincent Van Gogh’s legendary paintings. And for a few minutes there at the beginning, I felt sufficiently dazzled and enchanted. But eventually, the absence of a third-dimension wears on you, and before long you’re thinking, exactly how many more Starry Nights are left in this 94-minute movie, anyway?
Here’s the plot, in a nutshell. We begin one year after Vincent’s death. (I know! I also wish the already hopelessly enigmatic painter had been featured more prominently in his own damn movie.) The painter shot himself in the tummy and slowly bled out, but not before penning a letter to his brother that was never sent, and anyway, the brother’s since died of syphilis. Still, the letter carries symbolic weight, and The Postman (Chris O’Dowd) asks his son Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) to deliver the letter to the deceased brother’s widow. From there, we get a Citizen Kane-esque series of interviews with the men and women who were around for Vincent’s last days, and was it really a suicide at all, etcetera.
The artist doesn’t get many speaking lines, but we do see him in some flashbacks, rendered in black-and-white oil painting, helpfully. The best is when he walks into a brothel to deliver a bit of something in a handkerchief to a prostitute—and Jesus Christ, it’s the ear! Sure, he was crazy at the time of the ear slicing, but by all accounts, he was doing much better at the end, so the crux of the mystery lies in this flimsy question, delivered by The Postman: “How does a man go from calm to suicidal in six weeks?” (It happens all the time, but never mind.)
Still, this is the first film of its kind! (The promotional material continuously reminds us.) It’s true with regard to the oil-painting piece, but we’ve seen the basic process before. It’s called rotoscoping, wherein you shoot live actors and then animate over the frame to create bizarre, dreamlike images, such as in Richard Linklater’s 2001 masterpiece Waking Life. What an exciting film that was, and not just because the visual storytelling technique offered something entirely original: The story mattered, too. The stream-of-consciousness, philosophical adventure in Waking Life continues to resonate with audiences long after the brain fatigues of the novelty of its squiggly images. There’s nothing enduring about Loving Vincent’s lame imperative to deliver a letter. We begin the film in adoration of all the work that’s gone into its production and perhaps a vague sadness that Van Gogh has died. By the end, it starts to feel like maybe, sometimes, death is better.
There exists a BBC short about the making of Loving Vincent, featuring one of the painters trained to reproduce Van Gogh’s precise strokes. “I was only supposed to be in Poland for five weeks,” she tells the camera, with sick, desperate eyes. “It’s been more than five months…” How’s this for a spin-off idea: A real-life documentary directed by Charlie Kaufman featuring painters doomed to recreate Van Gogh paintings forever and ever… I mean, for the love of God, why did this need to be a feature-length production?