Loving Vincent review – a dreamlike, hand-painted plunge into Van Gogh Land

The artist’s last days appear in swirling, scintillating animated frames – it’s an impressive but weirdly exasperating exercise in style

Here is an oddity: intriguing and yet weirdly exasperating, like a sentimental tribute, or a one-joke epic, or a monomaniacal act of stylistic pedantry.

It’s an animation imagining the last months of Vincent van Gogh’s life, and specifically (but inconclusively) investigating the theory first aired in the 2011 biography by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White, that he did not shoot himself but was actually shot as a bizarre prank by a local bully, one René Secrétan, a 16-year-old who was tormenting poor Vincent and loved to swagger round the fields in a cowboy costume carrying a pistol. So on his deathbed Van Gogh claimed he had killed himself, perhaps out of weary despair, or a desire not to make posthumous trouble for the neighbourhood, or perhaps simply to avoid the ignominy of an absurd end, and claim the awful glamour of suicide.

But the real point of this film is that every frame is a pastiche of a Van Gogh canvas, and everything has avowedly been painted by hand. Landscapes pulse and throb, swirl and scintillate; brushstrokes bristle on skies or people’s faces like autumn leaves. Sometimes specific images are coyly referenced – although the film stops short of the sunflowers themselves.

Watch the trailer for Loving Vincent.

Directors Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela have created live-action footage with actors playing scripted roles and then digital software appears to have been used to facilitate the over-painting. It is a little like the rotoscope technique on Richard Linklater’s eerie, dreamlike film Waking Life from 2001, or Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir in 2008. But the point is that here actual, real oozing paint has been used: intricately, painstakingly. Audiences are entitled to ask: might not the same effect have been achieved much more easily with digital trickery from a laptop? Are Welchman and Kobiela like old school London cab drivers finding their way around with “the knowledge” while everyone else has satnav?

It’s not clear. But the result is a continuously weird and dreamlike film for which dreaminess and weirdness may not have been always appropriate. Douglas Booth plays Armand Roulin, the son of local postmaster in Auvers-sur-Oise, where Van Gogh’s life ended in illness and poverty – this is the bearded Joseph, played by Chris O’Dowd (both of whose images are of course based on Van Gogh’s portraits). On the narrative pretext of delivering a letter from Van Gogh to his brother Theo, Armand makes it his business to discover what actually happened and he talks to many famous portrait subjects. Van Gogh is played by Robert Gulaczyk and the flashbacks are in the form of monochrome pencil drawings.

It’s accomplished and, in a way, impressive. And as Van Gogh did paint so much, so indefatigably, it is almost as if a whole pictorial world could perhaps be put together, just as this film has been put together, from his canvases alone. But it also becomes oppressive, self-admiring and even a bit pointless. Does it imply that the spirit of Van Gogh is lingering behind, after his death, looking at everything in this pastiche Van Gogh way? Or have we simply been plunged into Van Gogh Land, like Disneyland? As an exercise in style, Loving Vincent is of interest, but it doesn’t tell us that much about his work or his life.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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