DECEMBER 30, 2017
THERE IS AN intense, monastic energy to Loving Vincent. The 90-minute animated feature consists entirely of oil paintings stylized after — and sometimes directly copying — the works of Vincent van Gogh. The labor that went into the film, seen in every dash of paint, is as difficult to imagine as the painstaking detail of ivory miniatures or Orthodox religious icons. In this almost masochistically extended effort, each second represents days of labor on the part of a team of more than one hundred classically trained painters who put together a total of 65,000 oil frames. I knew these numbers before the lights dimmed, and still I wasn’t quite prepared for what I would see. It felt like watching van Gogh’s canvas apparently come alive on their own terms, without shortcuts into the virtual or the digital. As a result, Loving Vincent has a heavy painterly grace in which the most important motion remains, as in van Gogh’s paintings themselves, that of the paintbrush.
A joint Polish and British production headed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, Loving Vincent takes its form from epistolary exchanges. It is also, itself, an extended, obsessive love letter to two different addressees. One of these addressees, more obvious to a Western audience, is the titular Vincent, whose impasto technique and actual works the film meticulously imitates. The second, less directly named but no less delightful, is the extended tradition of Eastern European animation, to whose expressionistic roots the film reaches back relentlessly.
The film’s title, Loving Vincent, carries a deliberately double meaning. On the one hand, it gestures toward the affection (flawed and distorted by envy and prejudice as it occasionally is) that the many people represented have for van Gogh. On the other hand, it is a slightly awkward quotation from the English translations of van Gogh’s actual letters: these are the last two words of his usual send-off, typically preceded by “your” in actual correspondence: as in, “your loving Vincent.” A similarly ambiguous twinning of pure admiration and archival precision forms the film’s conceptual backbone. The prompts out of which its narrative is woven combine van Gogh’s actual biography and letters, the named and unnamed figures depicted in his paintings, and what appears to be an earnest understanding of his art and the life behind it, as a beacon both of moral and of sensory illumination. Van Gogh is pictured as a model for deep sensitivity, for an unforgiving intensity of engagement with the world and with the self, and finally, also for the price one has to pay within this world for being such an overly responsive, solitary genius.
Appropriate to both the affective and the documentary contexts suggested by its title, Loving Vincent begins with an exemplar of what the narrator of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” famously describes as “dead letters.” A few weeks after Vincent van Gogh’s suicide, Monsieur Roulin, the postmaster of Arles, finds himself in possession of one of Vincent’s last letters, intended for his brother Theo. Roulin asks his son Armand to deliver this letter to Theo in person. Reluctantly persuaded to heed his father’s wishes, Armand travels to Paris, only to find out that Theo has died as well. He had been brought down, we are told in one of the film’s few instances of dark irony, by the joint force of sudden grief and third-stage syphilis. With neither a living sender nor a living recipient for the letter he carries, Armand continues to search for someone — anyone — close enough to Vincent that he could be this letter’s trustworthy bearer. Eventually, he heads to Auvers-sur-Oise on the trail of a Paris informant’s brief, enigmatic mention of a Docteur Gachet who lives there and used to treat Vincent in the last weeks of his life. In this small village full of people with strong opinions of and attachments to the deceased painter, Armand works his way through successive, oftentimes contradictory tales about van Gogh’s life. With him, we linger over van Gogh’s unhappy childhood and frustrated youth, his late discovery of painting, his mental breakdowns, and — in by far the greatest, but also most unresolved detail — the few months leading up to his death by a self-inflicted bullet wound. Predictably, this quest also becomes a voyage of discovery for Armand himself. A ne’er-do-well village drunk when we first meet him, he finds within himself both an unexpectedly strong moral compass and a surprisingly refined aesthetic sensibility.
Thus told, Loving Vincent sounds hagiographic, and indeed, only a blindly loyal admirer of postimpressionism might leave the theater with a belief in its historical objectivity. The film’s parable of seeking out and being restored by van Gogh’s artistic “message” lays itself bare to us from the get-go. Intended mostly as mouthpieces of this message, its characters rarely depart from early 20th-century stereotypes of their genders, classes, ages, and professions, occasionally composing themselves into the postimpressionist equivalent of a nativity play. But this narrative is also, very importantly, only a pretext, in something like the way medieval nativity plays were themselves seen as occasions for artisans to showcase their skills and specialties. The simple tale of van Gogh as an early 20th-century mystic is a canvas upon which the film’s actual drama takes place. Its true heart lies within the conversations it stages between still pictures and motion pictures, and — in particular — between oil painting and the more fleeting painterly forms of filmic animation.
The fantasy of making paintings come alive is very old, and it fuses together a wide variety of aesthetic and experiential aspirations. In one sense, this fantasy enacts the ideal of painting as an infinitely perfectible model of reality, as in the legend surrounding the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis, whose still lives were so vivid that flies crowded around them. In another sense, the dream of animated paintings is a stand-in for fantasies of time-travel. It expresses the impossible hope of unraveling movement out of paintings’ oftentimes stiff and cautiously posed stillness, promising to discover the painted subjects’ otherwise unattainable idiosyncratic preferences, personalities, and lives. Photographs and films arguably fulfilled the former fantasy — but they also intensified the appeal of the latter. To behold the seemingly precise, immediate way that history features in a photo or a motion picture makes paintings — especially pre-20th-century ones — seem all the more mysterious and mediated, the work of long interpersonal reflection and labor rather than of momentary mechanical capture.
Animated film, the genre to which Loving Vincent arguably belongs, bears a close, if complicated, relation to both of these fantasies. On the one hand, animation fulfills the dream of making paintings come alive in a very literal way. After all, it consists of a sequence of painted pictures captured in rapid succession (whose earliest forms precede film by almost a century). On the other hand, animated film remains within the realm of the dreamlike and the reductive. Sianne Ngai has described animatedness as a form of movement that appears comically flattened and constrained — one in which our minds and bodies are inevitably reduced to vulnerably stereotypical features.
Loving Vincent jumps headlong into these paradoxes. It puts itself in the service of an intense subjective realism, trying to come as close as possible to depicting what it might have been like to see the world, continuously, through van Gogh’s eyes. And, all the same, it continues to emphasize that its intense, immersive landscapes are, after all, only subjective. The mind and body to whom they belonged is long gone, and the access we have to it is heavily mediated, incomplete, and speculative.
In this depiction of the weeks after the artist’s death, the sense of loss that accompanies van Gogh’s paintings is augmented by the way his famous works fragment or melt away before our eyes, right after we have recognized and perhaps named them in our minds. The crows rapidly fly out of the frame in the film’s rendition of van Gogh’s famous summer harvest landscape; stars flicker and whirl for a while in his night skies, but then their yellow spirals into a uniform light blue. The brevity with which we behold the labor that went into each of the film’s meticulously executed frames reinforces the film’s narrative insistence on how little we have left of van Gogh’s artistry and self, and how much even small details we find out about him can nevertheless move us.
This sense of fragmentedness and fragility is also present in Loving Vincent’s visual transitions from one painting to another, within which it acquires an additional formal depth. Sometimes stilled in an emphatically derivative, one-to-one reproduction of a famous portrait or landscape, Loving Vincent’s creative emphasis lies in the hallucinatory visuals by means of which a character moves from the frame of a portrait into that of a landscape, or where the brushstrokes of van Gogh’s summer countryside paintings are effortfully remolded into the somewhat different lines of his still lives. The flamboyance with which Loving Vincent allows its characters’ features to be reduced to stick figure status in a field, and then to reacquire their precision against a living room tapestry, implicitly comments on the mutually incompatible distortions produced by van Gogh’s sensitivity to shifts of light and perspective. Indeed, at times it seems as if the film were showing us its two intertwined media — animation and painting — locked in an agonistic struggle. The former always threatens to break the latter’s attempts at a more reassuring sense of containment, permanence, and stillness. Loving Vincent highlights how much more difficult it is than it may seem to think of these paintings as expressing the same style or eye — the same aesthetic or affective coherence. In fact, this aesthetic tension between the static and the dynamic, between a movement toward death and a stillness that is already very much like death, also appears to be the deeper origin of the film’s obsession with the carrying and delivering of letters: they coalesce into a mode of communication that is similarly at once moving, and static.
Because of this aesthetic reflexivity and boldness, Loving Vincent feels more three-dimensionally present to the eye than other ostensibly 2-D animations. As in van Gogh’s paintings, the most real thing about the film appears to be the paint itself. Loving Vincent gives itself over wholeheartedly to the poetics of showing its painterly work. As it highlights the shifts, rises, and wedges of its brushstrokes, which dance unevenly from one frame to the next, it quests to reproduce and rediscover not only van Gogh as an artist, but also his particular medium, and the physical gestures by which he would apply his colors to a canvas. In this latter regard, Loving Vincent indirectly follows in the footsteps of earlier Eastern European animators’ longstanding love affairs with watercolors, clays, and pastels. Like this region’s pioneering motion picture artists, who include figures such as Jiří Trnka, Karel Zeman, and Břetislav Pojar, Kobiela and Welchman’s film plays with its colorful medium with dizzy, exhibitionist enjoyment. It gives this medium’s physicality — the way a coat of paint thins or accumulates in a particular corner, or the way a blob of black or yellow momentarily deforms a character’s feature — a sense of presence more palpable and at least as moving as the French villages and cities the paint represents.
Seen through this more lyrical, non-narrative lens, Loving Vincent marks the pinnacle of a certain kind of obstinate utopian sensibility: a sensibility relentlessly unconcerned with expenditure in its arduous quest to fill each second and each inch of space with as much color and violent intensity as possible. This is the selfless abandon that, rightly or not, the makers of Loving Vincent lovingly and admiringly attribute to van Gogh, their patron saint. A modern-day version of it lies at the source of the film’s own touchy, nervous, but at times genuinely ecstatic poise. By insisting on this parallel, the film finally also makes an implied argument for analog animation over and against its younger and glossier digital cousins. It makes present to us not just a certain fantasy of simplified and aestheticized motion, but also glimpses of the minds and bodies out of whose dreams and efforts this dream of disembodied, colorful spectacle emerges.
Marta Figlerowicz is an assistant professor of Comparative Literature and English at Yale, where she is also affiliated with the Film and Media Program. She is the author of Flat Protagonists (Oxford, 2016) and Spaces of Feeling (Cornell, 2017).