Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s Loving Vincent seduces with its plasticity and careful execution. However, it lacks a screenplay which properly dramatises its beautiful images and eye-catching sequences. That hasn't stopped it winning Best European Animated Feature Film at the European Film Awards 2017.
The film by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman was astounding as early as the production stage. In the 95-minute story, 65,000 paintings resembling those of Van Gogh were used. From among 5,000 entries, 125 artists were chosen, who, frame by frame, painted the story of the Dutch artist, using more than 3,000 litres of paint.
All these numbers are impressive, but the film itself leaves the viewer slightly dissatisfied and disappointed – all because of the screenplay’s flaws which afflict the Polish-British feature. The story about the life and death of Van Gogh portrayed in Loving Vincent was dressed up in anti-detective tropes and its subsequent sequences confirm its inability to get to the truth of the great painter.
Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) is the film's protagonist – he is the son of a postmaster (Chris O'Dowd), who assigns him a peculiar task one day. He has to return a letter left behind by The Starry Night’s author to his family. On the road, he meets the witnesses of the life and death of Van Gogh (Robert Gularczyk), but their testimonies do not add up and the subsequent stories and anecdotes turn out to be fabrications.
Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, and Jacek Dehnel, who co-authored the screenplay, take inspiration from the classics. Loving Vincent echoes masterpieces such as Welles’ Citizen Kane and Kurosawa’s Rashōmon – the most prominent stories in the history of cinema discussing the inability to discover the truth and delve into human mysteries. Unfortunately, in its clash with cinema classics, Loving Vincent’s screenplay proves to be just a feeble draft. It lacks dramaturgy, clear composition, and intrigue, which would make the film's narrative more compelling and the protagonist a vibrant character (instead of merely a messenger).
Loving Vincent turns out to be an overdeveloped educational film, which would be better off as a gallery piece than a cinema feature. Indeed, we learn who Van Gogh was, where he lived, how his relationship with his brother was, and which paints he used and where he bought them, but all this information is served to the viewer on a silver platter, in long-winded and somehow ham-fisted dialogues. The story of young Armand’s investigation leaves the viewer indifferent because the screenwriters focus more on adapting Van Gogh’s encyclopedic account to film than on dramatising Armand’s story and the people he meets. Ultimately, Loving Vincent proves to be an exceptionally beautiful art history crib sheet.
All this does not render Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s film’s plasticity any less impressive, thanks to the collaboration between painters and animators with expert actors. The paintings which Loving Vincent is built of naturally owe their malleable form to Van Gogh, but their film composition is the work of two camera operators: Łukasz Żal (Ida) and Tristan Oliver, responsible for such wonderful animations as The Wrong Trousers, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Chicken Run. It is thanks to this duo that the acting sequences could be repainted to assemble into such dynamic images.
Loving Vincent seems to be destined to succeed internationally. Even before its premiere, the film had been sold to 130 countries and the Oscar nomination for the best animated feature has been announced on 23th January 2018. More is the pity that this meticulously made, plastically beautiful film did not get a dramaturgist who would breathe life into this effusion of incredible images.
On December 9th 2017, it won Best Animated Film at the European Film Awards 2017.
Originally written in Polish by Bartosz Staszczyszyn, translated by Patryk Grabowski, October 2017; updated by AZ, Dec 2017