Film Reviews

London Film Festival 2017: Not really Loving Vincent, and not such a Happy End

Day Five of the London Film Festival brings a mixture of emotions for Callum Petch...

Loving Vincent

STARRING: Douglas Booth, Jerome Flynn, Robert Gulaczyk

DIRECTED BY: Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman
WRITTEN BY: Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman and Jacek Dehnel

Loving Vincent is a staggering technical achievement undone by a deeply-problematic if refreshingly-ambitious narrative conceit. You may have heard of Loving Vincent by its nature as the world’s first fully-painted animated feature film, and the it’s worth seeing on those grounds alone, for the spectacle at least. Even ignoring the opening title cards that proudly boast of the 115 painters it took to bring the film to life, Vincent is a film that deliberately plays into its artificiality at every turn. Present-set sequences are rendered in oils designed to recall the art of Vincent van Gogh, whilst the film’s multitudinous flashbacks are a mixture of black-and-white and grayscale that evoke sketches, but both are depicted via the art of rotoscoping, an animation technique that it is almost-impossible to make feel seamless and natural. The artificiality does work, though, in a weird way that’s hard to describe, and I had a giant appreciation for the craft displayed on-screen, particularly since the painting restrictions don’t limit fancy scene transitions.

Loving Vincent is also quite narratively ambitious, as well, following Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) as he is tasked with delivering the deceased van Gogh’s (Robert Gulaczyk) final letter, and in the process of finding its recipient, starts to question whether van Gogh really did commit suicide or if something more sinister was afoot. After all, he’s in a town that’s filled with people telling half-truths and carrying deep suspicions about one another, and, as he repeatedly asks, “how can a man go from ‘cured’ to shooting himself in six weeks?!” It’s suicide as noir, where those left to deal with the aftermath of somebody’s suicide try to find meaning within an act they find unfathomable, since the act of suicide (and the depression van Gogh was hopelessly enthralled to) is such a deeply personal one. So of course people would talk, paint villains, suspicions, doubts, have accounts that don’t sync up, and that somebody trying to make five from adding this particular two and two together would start barking up the wrong tree in a desperate attempt to make themselves feel better.

Points, I feel, should always be awarded for ambition, but those points, I also feel, should be taken away when the execution of those ambitions are bodged as horribly as they are in Loving Vincent. The simple fact is that tying an attempt to rationalise suicide to the structure and style of a noir mystery just plain does not work, and is at worst thoroughly insensitive. It’s putting the emotional strain on an unaffiliated party, supplementing that with the kind of “people talk” gossip that makes everybody a suspect and therefore a reason why someone might want to consider suicide due to their constant cruelty and insensitivity, and then utilising the eventual non-reveal to provide the kind of emotional closure that can only romanticise the myth of the tortured artist too beautiful for this world who successfully escaped his demons and is in a better place now. It’s dangerous and irresponsible, and also spelled out exactly as I did in that last sentence in the blindingly tone-deaf Oscar Bait song that plays over the end credits. The real score is half a star down from the one I’ve assigned it with, purely because I felt that a blunt 2 stars isn’t giving enough praise to the artistic achievement that the film has accomplished, but Loving Vincent’s bungled handling of this difficult thematic subject is what kills that artistic achievement single-handedly.


Gemini

STARRING: Lola Kirke, Zoë Kravitz, John Cho, Nelson Franklin, James Ransone, Reeve Carney

DIRECTED BY: Aaron Katz
WRITTEN BY: Aaron Katz

And as for film no. 4, Gemini by Aaron Katz, it’s all brought down by the ending. Gemini, you see, is also a mystery noir, although this time set in Present Day Los Angeles. Lola Kirke plays Jill, the long-suffering assistant to Zoë Kravitz’s big-shot Hollywood celebrity, Heather. The two, despite Heather’s whims changing on a day-to-day basis, are incredibly close, and perhaps even former lovers owing to Heather’s closeted bisexuality. Then, one day, Jill turns up to Heather’s house in the Hills to discover her dead, murdered by five bullets from a gun that Jill owns, accidentally fired by her earlier that morning, and loaned to Heather in an attempt to make her feel less unsafe. The police investigation, led by Detective Ahn (John Cho), knows the evidence points squarely to Jill, forcing her to go on the run and find the real killer. And she’s not exactly wanting for a list of suspects, from the fuming director (Nelson Franklin) whose passion project Heather just ditched, to the skeevy paparazzo (James Ransone) willing to go to great lengths to out Heather’s bisexuality, to the manager (Michelle Forbes) constantly aggrieved by Heather’s behaviour, to the ex-boyfriend (Reeve Carney) with a known temper who was not taking the break-up well…

Yeah, Gemini is deeply in love with old-fashioned noir, spiced with a tinge of gumshoe detective stories, and whilst it is not doing anything original nor performing them in original ways, it is an exquisite example of the form. Despite a deliberate lack of forward momentum, this is a film that still oozes menace from almost every single frame, Andrew Reed’s cinematography rendering the wide-open spaces of L.A. and the various buildings and apartments we visit as lifelessly empty yet also stiflingly thick with atmosphere. His interplay of colours drawing attention to that weird malaise of perpetual brink that becomes numbing after a while, aided by Keegan DeWitt’s fantastic score. This is a film you lose yourself in, luxuriate in, albeit not one without something real poking out from all of that artificiality, courtesy of strong charismatic performances from Kirke and Kravitz that make the hole in the film that appears once Kravitz exits all the more apparent.

…then the ending happens, and the film just craters in the most pathetic way possible. Avoiding spoilers: the problem is not the reveal itself, one that a lot of people have seemingly had a problem with if comments from Katz during his post-film Q&A were anything to go by, that’s fine. In fact, it’s actually quite brilliant, tying into the damning critique of the artificiality of Los Angeles and celebrity lifestyle, where seemingly nothing is sacred and everything can be torched without a second thought as to the consequences for others. Where it craters is in the follow-through or, rather, the total lack of. Gemini makes the reveal and then just seems to panic and throw in a glib joke of a consequence instead of an ending, like Katz (who wrote as well as directed) was just completely at a loss as to how to conclude the film after that reveal. What he ends up going for… I’d use the term “wet fart,” but wet farts actually leave something on your pants when they’re finished. This ending… this is nothing, and it almost completely shatters everything the film had worked for up to then. It’s a total heartbreaker to witness, because YOU WERE THIS CLOSE, GEMINI!

Tomorrow: A couple lose their son in the fog whilst hiking Three Peaks, and Sally Potter’s political comedy The Party screens early at the Festival.

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