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Loving Vincent

I generally appreciate starry-eyed visionaries following through on ill-advised, shoot-for-the-moon ideas, even when the results are underwhelming. There are lessons to be learned and inspiration to be taken, and some demonstrable good is likely to come of it eventually. That said, I wish Loving Vincent, the first animated feature film to be constructed from tens of thousands of oil paintings, were more of an achievement than a stunt.

Narratively, it’s a fairly stale exercise in hagiographic historical fiction, but storytelling seems to be a secondary priority at best. Loving Vincent is primarily determined to use Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings as biographical mise-en-scène, regardless of efficacy, and as the boastful text on its very first frames makes clear, what’s most important is that we know how laborious it was to produce. This kind of grandstanding is a pet peeve of mine; it equates effort with quality, values process over product, and in this case betrays a lack of holistic vision, celebrating a cog at the expense of the machine.

This would be less frustrating if its vaunted animation technique were more rewarding. As far as I know, Van Gogh didn’t work from photographs (for the most part), but Loving Vincent does. Each frame is an image from live-action footage transposed to oil on canvas. The look is unquestionably evocative of the painter’s distinctive style, and it may well be that each individual painting is a fitting tribute, but taken in sequence, the conspicuously literal quality of motion is distractingly incongruous with the character of the original paintings. The fidelity of the closeups in particular feels less interpreted than traced. I can understand how the sculptural tactility of Van Gogh’s impasto would drive the compulsion to create this film with actual oil paint, but undermining that expressive, handmade texture with the fluid precision of rotoscoping strikes me as a tragic, avoidable mistake.

It’s possible that with a less contrived script and a team of actual animators (rather than painters doing Post-Impressionist recreations of video stills), Loving Vincent could have been a film more worthy of the gargantuan effort behind it. But I’m unconvinced it was a good idea to begin with. Lots of people will describe it as “bringing Van Gogh’s paintings to life,” as if motion pictures have some kind of artistic monopoly on capturing vitality. But Van Gogh’s work, in all its stillness, is already very much alive. In this case at least, adding dimension only diminishes that.