While Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman's Loving Vincent might have an uphill battle edging out Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina's Oscar-frontrunner Pixar film Coco as this year's best animated feature, the film's novel—not to mention ambitious—technical feats are certainly worth a closer look. The technique, in this case, is a combination of rotoscoping (think A Scanner Darkly) and 65,000 frames of hand-painted oil renderings in the style of the master himself, Vincent van Gogh.
Of course, the first question when a novel method is employed is: Does it work?
Visually, I would say yes—there are some interesting results. Most strikingly is that some scenes just drip off the screen with a certain pathos I'm not sure is always achieved in a live-action film. This is made possible through art direction that's very careful to give all of the attention to the characters' faces and then relying on broader strokes for the clothing and backdrops. This allows a shallow depth of field; a technique photographers often use in portraits, where the background is blurred in favor of a clear focus on the subject in the foreground. In this way, Loving Vincent can hone in the speaker's emotions, and since the frames are painted based on the movement of real-life actors, these facial expressions are not contrived or exaggerated in the same way they may be in your typical animated feature.
This serves the film's plot well as the story, constructed by writers Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, and Jacek Dehnel, is more or less a montage of conversations our protagonist Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) has with people who knew van Gogh (Robert Gulaczyk) and are reflecting on his peculiar genius a year after his death, many accounts being, of course, filled with grief. Armand, the son of a mailman who was an acquaintance of van Gogh's (the latter was apparently a prolific letter writer), goes down a rabbit hole first trying to find a next of kin for Vincent and later trying to determine just how the tortured artist died at 37. The screenwriters halfheartedly try to create a sort of whodunit out of Armand's conversations—Was Vincent depressed? Or could it have been murder? That latter is less successful as a cohesive whole than each scene is independently. Where Loving Vincent succeeds at created emotion, it fails at achieving tension or stakes.
Perhaps this is because the filmmakers are quite literally trying to string together disparate moments captured in van Gogh's actual paintings. The idea that a static picture can come to life has long been a beloved device of magical realism, and Loving Vincent may just do this better than any film to date. Paintings such as Starry Night (1889), Portrait of the Postman Joseph (1888), and Wheatfield with Crows (1890) are used as storyboard thumbnails for the film to adapt and expand upon. The problem is these people and places aren't necessarily connected enough for viewers develop stakes in any one relationship and, more importantly, van Gogh didn't create enough self-portraits to give himself ample screen time in his own movie. While we hear touching testimonials from unexpected friends and acquaintances, van Gogh's feelings seem to be missing. Although from entirely different genres, one can think of a film like Asif Kapadia's Amy , (2015) about the passed jazz singer Amy Winehouse, and marvel at how the filmmakers, through found footage, kept her front and center in this documentary about her life, despite it being released four years after her death. Loving Vincent's titular character, however, remains mysterious and elusive.
Still, the film adds some shading around the edges to a figure that mainstream culture has oft dismissed as "that crazy painter guy who cut off his ear." One of the most successful exchanges Armand has is with the neighborhood bartender Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tomlinson) who seems genuinely in awe of the man who would prop his easel up outside, even as the rain poured down all around him. It's hard to know who to credit in a rotoscoped film—Tomlinson or the painters (perhaps both)—but Adeline's facial expressions during her recollections of Vincent catch such pure awe and delight that without this exchange the film would have lost a fair chunk of its heart.
Where Adeline captures the inspiration, Vincent's mistress Marguerite Gachet (Saoirse Ronan) sheds light on the artist's existential despair. After all, what does it say when a man's best friend is his psychiatrist—a man who doesn't choose to engage but must? While Ronan brings a solid performance as a Victorian woman torn between what one wants to do and what one ought to, her scenes, at least her scene at home, are less successful in part because of the art. Unfortunately, when the contrast in facial expressions is faded, due to the lighting, and we can't read the emotions well, the film's one best advantage is lost. Fortunately, it's only with Marguerite's character, made up of peaches and teals in similar shades, where this happens.
In any case, while it's a marvelous service to the artist to capture the voices of the women (and men) in his inner circle, the film leaves one wondering how Vincent himself thought about the world. Despite having access to 200 personal letters, the film only briefly lets us into his head, and perhaps that's what's least satisfying about this film. Loving Vincent might not be the total package required for the big prize on Oscar night, but bless the artists out there who take a chance at something new. After all, even if this story lacks, his paintings still beg for endless interpretations.