What do we mean by “Style over substance”? Sometimes it’s a criticism, sometimes it’s merely an observation. Great action movies like The Raid don’t need all that much substance because of the sheer amount of visual flare, and the same goes for whizz-bang animated spectacles like Disney’s Fantasia. These are not great movies in spite of their “lack of substance”; they’re great movies because they have “just enough substance“ – enough for the style to carry the rest of the weight. It’s this delicate balance that makes Loving Vincent an extraordinary and frustrating film.
If you can believe it (hell, I barely could) every single frame in this film is a painting. Actors were filmed performing their roles (including Saoirse Ronan and Chris O’Dowd), then artists painted over the frames to create this one-of-a-kind tribute to one of history’s greatest (and most troubled) artists, Vincent Van Gogh. This would be a near-impossible task and it would require an extraordinary amount of attention to detail and coordination. And yet, here it is. It exists, and every visual artist involved did an exceptional job. It’s a living painting. Seeing the movement of brush-marks change from frame to frame is hypnotising enough, let alone the vivid impressionistic landscapes they’re depicting. It’s the best possible result of saluting an artist who created an unprecedented visual world. And that concludes the style portion of this review.
When it comes to animated movies, I’ve always been convinced that, if a film uses particularly arduous and laborious production methods (stop-motion, Claymation or, say, moving paintings), it would indicate that the film is also really well written. Stop-motion animation, for example, is so snail-paced that an especially productive day on the set yields about three seconds of footage. Surely, if people are going to spend this much time making something with glass-fingered precision, then the source material had better be amazing, or else what’s the point in doing it? You don’t invest years of your life into making Grown Ups 2, or you’d have an existential crisis. Loving Vincent is the film which changed my perspective on this.
There’s a scene which shows a gang of children throwing rocks at Vincent while he paints in a field. This is a thing that happened, because kids are cruel and people with mental illnesses were 100% fair game for abuse in those days, but when you actually hear what the children are saying, it’s hard to believe any of it. You catch phrases like “Go on, get out of it!” over and over, and one of them chants in a mocking sing-song “We are the kids!!” “We are the kids”? That’s the line they went with – really? I have a feeling that the script didn’t specify the children’s dialogue. It’s likely that the on-duty director for the day rounded up some children and told them “Throw rocks at this guy and say kid things. Taunt him.” It’s amazing that a film with such incredible visual prowess could sound so much like amateur dramatics. This may feel like a nit-pick, but it’s the kind of glaring detail which makes you lose faith in a story.
Maybe they had too much faith in their own concept. It’s as if they thought “The dialogue and the acting doesn’t matter here – the paintings will carry it through”. And yet they do matter, a surprising amount. Hiring a more seasoned screenwriter to at least do some editing would have ironed out a lot of creases. Some of the acting is bizarrely wooden too, especially from the normally reliable Chris O’Dowd, who reads his lines like he’s being held hostage by the cameraman. For reasons like this Loving Vincent is agonisingly imperfect, but is it good enough? Is there sufficient substance in this film to make it “good”? Yes. Loving Vincent is a good film. Hell, it’s a very good film, but the premise, the subject and the style is so utterly wonderful that, for some reason, “very good” isn’t quite good enough.