There’s so much to do in life and so little time. Should I go out to a movie tonight, or visit the art museum?
“Loving Vincent” is the closest you can get to doing both simultaneously. The astonishing animated film by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman is perhaps the ultimate artistic tribute to Vincent Van Gogh, in that over 100 artists spent seven years handpainting every one of the 140,000 frames of the film. Their work is an eloquent celebration of Van Gogh’s work; Vincent wrote to his brother Theo, “We cannot speak other than by our paintings.”
The effect is amazing. We see the thick, luscious brushstrokes, inspired by Van Gogh’s style, whirling and changing before our eyes on the screen. The opening shot is Van Gogh’s iconic “Starry Night,” the screen alive with halos of yellow and white against blue and black. Then, as if in a crane shot in a movie, it’s as if we go into the painting itself, diving down into the streets of Arles, France, in 1891.
“Loving Vincent” takes us “inside” several of Van Gogh’s most recognizable paintings. When we enter a bar scene after that opening shot, it’s “The Night Café.” Many of its characters are the subjects of his paintings. Flashbacks are portrayed as sharp black-and-white sketches. We really do see the world the way Van Gogh saw it.
The painstaking process apparently involved filming real-life actors (including Saoirse Ronan and Chris O’Dowd) and then tasking the painters with recreating the images on canvas, frame by frame. Amazingly, the vitality of the performances shine through the pastels and oil paints, and the animation is smooth enough to be almost eerie.
“Loving Vincent” is such an audacious project that it’s enough to ignore the story and drink in the images. It’s also perhaps the preferred way to watch it, as the plot itself is the weakest aspect of the movie.
Set a year after Van Gogh’s suicide, the film follows young Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), tasked by his postmaster father (Chris O’Dowd) with delivering a letter found among Van Gogh’s personal things and addressed to his brother. In the process of trying to deliver the posthumous letter, Armand discovers that Theo died soon after his brother.
But as he talks to those who knew Van Gogh, he also discovers a lot of unanswered questions about Van Gogh’s death. Did he really commit suicide, shooting himself in the chest, dragging himself home and dying in agony in his bed over a day later? Or was the shooting accidental? Or was someone else involved?
While there are “Van Gogh truthers” who question the accepted version of the artist’s death, it’s not really a mainstream view and, ultimately, irrelevant to the artist's impact on art. Watching Armand trying to unravel a mystery that really isn’t feels a little pointless.
What’s valuable is how the Armand's interviews illuminate Van Gogh as a complex person — tortured and unhappy often, but also capable of great joy and kindness. In its obsession and its meticulous precision, “Loving Vincent” is a portrait worthy of its subject.