Vladimir Nakobov’s 1938 novel “Laughter in the Dark” begins with its rich and horny (but happily married) hero arriving at the vision that will ultimately ruin his life. A retired art critic with cinematic aspirations, old Albinus is struck by the idea of taking a famous painter, “preferably of the Dutch School,” and animating one of his signature works into the stuff of motion pictures. Film technology was still in its infancy, and it made anything seem possible. What if someone could use it to breathe new life into a static canvas, adding new dimensions to the artist’s vision and illustrating what might have happened in the moments before and after the one that was immortalized in oil?
Albinus, to his credit, recognized the unique challenges that might be involved in such an endeavor. “It would entail a delicacy of work calling for novel improvements in the method of animation, and would cost a whole lot of money… And the designer would not only have to possess a thorough knowledge of the given painter and his period, but be blessed with talent enough to avoid any clash between the movements produced and those fixed by the old master: he would have to work them out from the picture — oh, it could be done.” And now it has, for better or worse.
It took 125 painters, 62,450 paintings (yep), and the better part of a decade for writer-directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman to get it done, but “Loving Vincent” is the first feature-length animated film to be made entirely of oil paintings on canvas. Given the amount of work involved, and the stilted effect of the finished product, it will most likely also be the last.
An extraordinary (and entirely demented) labor of love that makes for a wan and uneven viewing experience, “Loving Vincent” takes the phrase “every frame a painting” to very literal new levels. Ostensibly something of a second-hand biopic, Kobiela and Welchman’s singular film unfolds like an awkward blend of “Citizen Kane” and “Waking Life,” exploring the mystery of Vincent van Gogh’s death — and awing at the inflammable genius that defined the final years of his life — through the recollections of those who knew him best.
The story, such as it is, frames itself around a young man’s quest to deliver one of van Gogh’s final letters to the painter’s brother in Paris during the summer of 1891. When the sullen Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) discovers that Theo van Gogh is dead as well, he embarks on a quest to better understand what led to the artist’s suicide (or murder!?), slowly opening himself up to the idea that there might have been more to the self-mutilating village lunatic than met the eye. After speaking to a wide cast of characters that includes van Gogh’s paint supplier, his doctor, and the doctor’s daughter (Saoirse Ronan), Armand eventually arrives at a posthumous appreciation for the immortal Post-Impressionist.
Plodding and pockmarked with conflicting black-and-white flashbacks, the plot here is little more than a means to an end. A generous assessment might conclude that the narrative resolves into a parable about the void that brilliance leaves behind, and the process through which even a pitiable person can be transmuted into legend, but there’s no getting around the fact that “Loving Vincent” is inextricably hamstrung to its conceit. The film isn’t just presented in the style of van Gogh’s paintings; on the contrary, it fulfills Albinus’ dream by seamlessly stitching 94 of the paintings into the action. As a result, most of the scenes are written and structured in order to accommodate as many of these reference points as possible — even Lars von Trier would chafe at such a ridiculous obstruction.
Kobiela and Welchman arrive at all sorts of clever solutions to this problem, but they’re never able to solve it completely. They’re never able to dramatize the very 19th century question of how a man can go from calm to suicidal in just six weeks, and the movie only feels more disjointed as it digs its way toward some kind of truth.
Of course, nobody is going to watch “Loving Vincent” for its plot. The style of the film is its substance, and Kobiela and Welchman seem to recognize how oppressive and backward it is to impose logic on an artist whose so vividly defied it, even if that knowledge couldn’t stop them from tilting at windmills. “We cannot speak other than by our paintings,” reads the opening quote (even the credits are painstakingly hand painted), and this project comes closest to realizing its potential during the quiet moments when it feels like we’re seeing the world through van Gogh’s eyes. Nothing here is as bracing as the wild-eyed fervor of “Lust for Life,” or as alive as the bit in Kurosawa’s “Dreams” in which van Gogh is played by a cuddly Martin Scorsese, but the best stretches of “Loving Vincent” make a convincing case that great artists are better understood through their work than through the facts of their life.
The worst stretches make that same case even more convincingly. As neat as it is to see “The Starry Night” squiggle about like a piece of background animation leftover from “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist,” altering van Gogh’s paintings has a curious way of disrupting their magic. The figures in van Gogh’s paintings are so expressive precisely because his ecstatic brush strokes allowed their souls to shine through, but assigning them voices — mundane, ordinary voices — results in an unpleasant tug-of-war between the senses. All movies, especially this one, rely on the relationship between reality and illusion, but “Loving Vincent” antagonizes those forces against one another. Only Clint Mansell’s characteristically fluid score maintains any sort of audiovisual equilibrium.
Maybe everyting would have been less jarring had Kobiela and Welchman painted the film from scratch, but the decision to shoot it first with live actors and then rotoscope them later only makes it more difficult to float between the frames. Recognizable actors like Saoirse Ronan and Chris O’Dowd (playing Armand’s postman father) may have been necessary to get this thing funded, and the weight of their voices helps ground the story in a human place, but it’s hard to sustain the illusion when Bronn from “Game of Thrones” (Jerome Flynn) saunters through one of van Gogh’s masterpieces.
Understanding the jaw-dropping effort that went into this movie, it’s tempting to wish that Kobiela, Welchman, and their army of animators had come to the same conclusion that old Albinus reached before he scrapped the whole idea: A film made in this way, he reckoned, “would bore most people to death and be a general disappointment.” Now we also know that the finished product would also dilute the strength of the art that inspired it. Still, there’s something ineffably beautiful about such a purehearted folly, even if a Herzogian drama about the making of “Loving Vincent” might have more to offer than the film does itself. All art requires a bit of madness, and all cinema even more so. Not every delirious vision is worth seeing through, but we’d be lost if not for the people who are still willing to learn that lesson the hard way.
“Loving Vincent” played at the 2017 Telluride Film Festival. It will open in theaters on September 22.