written by Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Jacek Dehnel
directed by Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman
by Walter Chaw I love stop-motion animation. William Blake referred to the "infernal method," talking about etching plates with acid and how each print of his work would be touched by him, the artist, to better imbue it with life. Stop-motion animation to me is evidence that there's something to the idea of a transference of vitality through human contact. It's why I was curious about Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman's insane Loving Vincent, a feature-length film composed of over 65,000 hand-painted oil paintings, animating Van Gogh's most famous paintings and making characters of his subjects. It's a fascinating experiment, the product of one of those late-night bull sessions fuelled by cigarettes and whiskey where aspiring artist-types and freshman cosmology students get profound with one another. Consider Loving Vincent to be the cold reality of the morning after. Over 100 artists laboured over 10 years to essentially make a tedious rotoscope cartoon held together, barely, by an embarrassing screenplay dependent on loads of exposition and a repetitive flashback device. It's an endurance test of rare sadism.
Worse, if you're at all familiar with Van Gogh's paintings, lacking any other reason to pay attention you'll find yourself waiting for them to pop up like the two or three hits an old-timers band has built its legacy concerts around. That one with the crows? Yeah, there it is. The wheat? Yep. That one that sold for like $80M a few years ago? Check. Loving Vincent vastly diminishes them, in other words, turning them into cheap answers for a Van Gogh Scene-It! game while neutering their contemplative impact as still art. It reminds me of Eric Rohmer's The Lady and the Duke (2001), in which paintings from around the time of the French Revolution are used as backdrops for real actors. That film works because it has a great script and a real director. Loving Vincent has neither, just a gimmick. The plot, for what it's worth, revolves around Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), the animated version of the subject of Van Gogh's "Portrait of Armand Roulin, Young Man in a Yellow Jacket" (not to be mistaken for Curious George's dad), who seeks to deliver a letter from the dead Vincent to Vincent's dead brother, Theo. Voiced by Booth as Captain Jack Sparrow, Armand wanders around the small village outside of which Vincent killed himself, or was killed, or was accidentally killed, interviewing other hand-painted reproductions of Van Gogh's subjects to try to suss out what happened.
What happened was that after the twentieth or so time someone began "I remember Vincent!" and the film wiggled into a black-and-white flashback depicting their thoughtful reverie, I prayed for the sweet release of death to take me. Boring is one sin--pretentious is another. I admire, greatly, the absolute audacity of making something as unlikely as this and the stick-to-itiveness to pull it off, but, guys, Jesus. The hubris that allowed them to finish is probably the same hubris that told them it wasn't necessary to hire a screenwriter in addition to the few recognizable voice talents (Saoirse Ronan, Chris O'Dowd) to justify its existence as something other than a dare gone wrong. It would've even been better as a Waking Life, where the talking heads were film historians and critics who could go on at length while animated versions of the paintings unspooled behind and around them. Anything would have worked better than attempting to graft this stilted mystery narrative onto Van Gogh's oeuvre, free entirely of any discernible ability to create intrigue, tension, or pace. It's a sideshow curiosity: The Incredible Bad Idea; the Graduate Art School Project Gone Wrong. Whatever respect I have for its pluck is balanced by how I didn't walk out of it. Bad choices all around.