Loving Vincent (Kobiela & Welchman, 2017)

It takes a bit of time to get used to the animation of Loving Vincent, hand painted as it is in the style of van Gogh’s artworks. Overhead shots of towns and fields, and any fast or abrupt movement in general, cannot really be captured with much grace through this technique, so there are a few brief moments where its shortcomings shine through. On the whole, though, the level of care and detail put into this film is incredible. The texture of paint on canvas comes through so well on the screen, and there is never a minute where you see corners cut or compromises made. This is the careful handiwork of human tirelessness and talent from beginning to end. The paintings may not be as perfect as van Gogh’s are, but you appreciate why: there was never someone like him again.

The storyline here has received the brunt of the film’s criticism, and I’m not going to pretend it’s one of its strengths. Think of a mystery writer of old—Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell and what have you—taking the circumstances of van Gogh’s death and spinning it into a whodunit. You’ve got your amateur sleuth (Douglas Booth) and a bevy of witnesses and suspects (among them being Helen McCrory, Saoirse Ronan, Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson). Much of the film is comprised of Booth interviewing these people from Vincent’s past and their remembrances of the man during his final days. Around the midpoint, Booth tries to assemble a plausible theory that Vincent was murdered, pointing out to us a few inconsistencies and unexplained occurrences. It really takes on the feel of a detective story from the early twentieth century. The problem is that the film does not take the leap into the speculative. It does not follow through on its murder theory and advance a definitive solution. You would think it would, and it almost does. But then, at the last minute, it decides to play nice with the historical record and leave van Gogh’s death as most people see it today: the suicide of someone suffering severe mental illness. No bad guy to nab, nor any smoking guns.

Framing this story as a whodunit, and then shying away from the device, makes the film look a little silly. It’s as if it wants to justify the effort of hand painting every frame, but can’t quite do it because it doesn’t know what kind of film it wants to be. I, however, find justification from a simpler route: the collective portrait that the story paints of van Gogh himself. This is not a biopic in the sense that it intimately opens up van Gogh’s personal life to us. What it does instead is show us who the man was in the eyes of the people who knew him best. It doesn’t silence the man, but rather invites us to see his pain, his loneliness, and his genius from the perspective of people who recognised it. In a few key moments, excerpts from letters Vincent wrote to his brother also do a wonderful job at showing us his soulful, tortured eloquence. The man, at his very core, was unknowable even to himself. The film portrays that in a very moving way, and I won’t deny that I was greatly touched.

We may never get a film like this again, style-wise. It’s amazing something like this was done at all. But despite some detractors, I think Loving Vincent was a worthwhile endeavour. It understands the spirit of the man it pays tribute to, and even if its approach to his story isn’t entirely the right one, I think it still works itself out in the end.