Biographical films about artists often seemed doomed to failure or, at the very least, extreme dullness. Often seeming to be based upon the summary paragraph of the subject’s Wikipedia article, rushing through their lives and briefly showcasing their most famous works, they rarely actually interrogate the artist’s legacy or integrate their work in meaningful ways, and seem to lose even more potency after their evisceration in Dewey Cox. So, when Loving Vincent came out in 2017 on the heels of dozens of other films about Vincent Van Gogh, the artist who seems to have captured the public imagination like no other, I had low expectations that it would be anything more than an interesting experiment in animation. Instead, it was a beautiful look at Van Gogh’s impact through animation painstakingly created in his style by more than one hundred artists.
Rather than taking the standard biopic approach and showing Van Gogh’s life, Loving Vincent takes place entirely after the artist’s death as Armand Roulin (a real-life subject of a Van Gogh painting), is tasked by his father (a postmaster who was also painted by Van Gogh) with delivering a letter written by Van Gogh to his brother, Theo. Initially dismissive of Van Gogh as a lunatic, Armand’s journey introduces him to many of Van Gogh’s acquaintances and artistic muses and quickly turns him into an ardent defender of the artist and causes him to doubt the story of Van Gogh’s suicide, turning the plot towards something more like a murder mystery as he seeks answers. It’s a fascinating look at the immediate fallout of Van Gogh’s death that investigates how an artist who only sold one painting in his lifetime could become the most famous artist in the world after his death. Is the appreciation for his art entirely based in the works themselves or, did the stories that had his contemporaries calling him crazy, such as cutting off his ear, contribute just as much by in turn inspiring their own art about him? Van Gogh’s differences must have been part of what pushed him to create a whole new artistic vocabulary that wasn’t immediately commercially viable but would become more and more popular as cameras caused a shift away from photorealistic painting being preferred. He was ahead of his time more than he was so different from everyone else, as Armand finds in the film, and perhaps in another more understanding place or time Van Gogh could’ve found more support in his life or at least glimpsed some of what he has come to mean to millions.
The most fascinating part of the film though, isn’t that it understands the legacy of Van Gogh and presents it in a new way, but that it directly emulates and builds upon his painting style by being the first fully oil-painted film. Every single one of the more than 65,000 frames of the film was painstakingly crafted by a team of 125 classically trained painters, melding Van Gogh’s original paintings and rotoscoped filming of the actors. No other artist could be so perfectly suited to the technique. Before the advent of movies, the lines in Van Gogh’s paintings were already so fluid they seemed to be moving pictures, so literally making them move seemed a logical next step. Animation can be a beautiful medium that transcends the limitations of photography but unfortunately, it’s often relegated to the realm of unimaginative children’s entertainment. Here, though, every frame is so close to Van Gogh’s style it would be familiar to even those with the most limited knowledge of art, in filmed form it is something entirely new and a visual delight throughout. According to filmmakers, the huge expenses and time related to hand painting 65,000 frames unfortunately means Loving Vincent will likely be the only time something like this comes to fruition, at least in the foreseeable future. I only hope they’re wrong and the film can be like its subject, eventually inspiring slews of imitators.