For Loving Vincent, filmmakers Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman spent years with hundreds of collaborators creating thousands of still paintings by hand, which they stitched together to forge a barely moving picture that follows an investigation of the last days of Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh’s life. New paintings, fashioned in van Gogh’s imitable style, are wedded with the artist’s actual compositions, which often serve as establishing shots of settings. For instance, a shot of The Starry Night opens the film, before the camera pans down to show a fight that will initiate the narrative.
Loving Vincent epitomizes the sort of achievement that’s more fascinating in theory than reality. The film imposes stifling literal-mindedness on mysterious masterpieces, as it’s driven by an off-putting and oxymoronic fusion of reverence and egotism. Van Gogh’s art is complete unto itself, offering a portrait of sensitivity and empathy that were achieved by an artist who navigated the violent and alienated expanses of his psyche. Van Gogh’s sharp brush strokes provide unsurpassably evocative movement. What can Kobiela and Welchman’s fastidious copying and pasting bring to this art?
The film’s premise is embarrassingly ordinary given the magnitude of its overall undertaking—a pretense for allowing Kobiela and Welchman to indulge their laborious yet gimmicky secondhand formalism. In the French countryside a year after van Gogh’s death, Armand Roulin (voiced by Douglas Booth) sets out to deliver Vincent’s final letter to his brother, Theo, unware that he’s also dead. Questioning Vincent’s acquaintances, who each provide Wikipedia-style factoids of the artist, Armand gradually realizes what everyone in the 21st century accepts as a given: that this painter of disrepute was a genius. In a desperate bid to inform Loving Vincent with something resembling urgency or suspense, the filmmakers suggest that Vincent might’ve been murdered, only to confirm that his death was probably a suicide after all.
If one’s looking to build an entire film on the notion of resurrecting a legendary artist’s work, one might wish to shape the narrative in a manner that allows for a present tense, so as to contrast with the rigid past-ness of canonical history. The paintings are gorgeous and—in the case of van Gogh’s—brilliant, but they exude more life hanging in the wall of a gallery than they do serving as wallpaper for Loving Vincent, which shackles van Gogh’s work to a tedious coming-of-age story. The film is fashioned as a Citizen Kane-style hall-of-mirrors mystery in which we already know the resolution, and the most interesting characters—Vincent and Theo—are barely present. The film’s haunted by misplaced and unfulfilled ambition.