“Did he want to live after all?”
The life of Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh would seem ideal fodder for cinematic embellishment. That life was often chaotic and shrouded in mystery. His untimely death – an apparent suicide – was as well. The moments in between saw Van Gogh craft some of the most radical and influential paintings the world has ever seen. Still, in the century-plus since Van Gogh’s death, Robert Altman’s 1990 film Vincent & Theo remains the only notable dramatization of the troubled painter’s life. Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman set out to remedy that fact with their lavish, hand-painted ode to Van Gogh’s turbulent existence and mysterious death, Loving Vincent.
Their film takes place a full two years after Van Gogh’s death. The action is set in motion after Vincent’s final letter to his beloved brother Theo is discovered amongst his long-discarded belongings. A young Frenchman named Armand Roulin is tasked with delivering that letter to the younger Van Gogh in Paris. If you know anything about Theo’s own tragic demise, then you know that Roulin’s journey does not end there. Thus, much of Loving Vincent‘s tale unfolds in the tiny French town where Vincent died, Auvers-sur-Oise. Amongst that tragic but sumptuous backdrop, Roulin sets out to unravel the mystery of Van Gogh’s death once and for all.
Those of you unfamiliar with Van Gogh’s work should note that the artist had a penchant for obsessively painting the people and places that surrounded him. You might also note that Roulin himself was one of Vincent’s subjects. The young Frenchman is not alone in his Loving Vincent cameo. In fact, Kobiela and Welchman populate the man’s search for truth with a bevy of familiar faces and places. Those include ‘The Postman’, ‘Marguerite Gachet’ and her father ‘Dr. Paul Gachet’, ‘The Yellow House’ and the ‘Wheatfield With Crows’ to name just a few.
Kobiela and Welchman tasked a team of 100 artists with hand-painting each of those faces and places in Van Gogh’s signature style for the film. Then the directors asked them to make those images move, bringing live actors (Douglas Booth, Saoirse Ronan, Chris O’Dowd and Jerome Flynn) into the mix with rotoscoping technology. The result is as breathtaking as you might imagine. Each passing frame of Loving Vincent swirls and moves and breathes as if they were actually alive. The effect is akin to walking into Van Gogh’s mind and seeing each iconic image through his own eyes. What Loving Vincent accomplishes in these moments feels as bold and as radical as the artist’s most renowned work.
And yet, Kobiela and Welchman often undercut the vibrancy of their own film in service of narrative tricks. As Loving Vincent is set two years after the artist’s death, much of the film is told in flashback. Kobiela and Welchman present each look back in the more structured, formal style that defined Van Gogh’s early works (i.e. ‘The Potato Eaters’, ‘Peasant Woman Digging’, etc). Make no mistake, these sections of the film are lovely in their own right. But like much of Van Gogh’s early works, they’re eclipsed by the beauty and audacity of what came later. It’s worth ask as well what led the directors to present these flashbacks in black and white at all. One can’t help but wonder if removing the vibrant colors that permeated Vincent’s living world might’ve been more effective had the post-Vincent world been represented sans color.
Loving Vincent suffers further from a screenplay that places too much emphasis on rumor and conjecture. Yes, there is a genuine mystery as to whether or not Van Gogh actually shot himself or not. There’s even some doubt as to where the fatal act occurred. But Loving Vincent tries to do a little too much with those doubts. The film’s narrative often plays like a slightly less paranoid version of Oliver Stone’s JFK. In tying their story so directly to the mystery of Van Gogh’s death, they very nearly lose sight of his miraculous life and talent.
But in the end, Loving Vincent manages to play more as a celebration of that life and talent than anything else. It stands as an astonishing achievement in style as well. One that jumps off the screen and pulls you into a world at once eerie and exhilarating. One that revels in the tortured, revolutionary work of one of art’s true pioneers. And one that comes as a monumental reminder that hand-drawn and/or painted animation still deserves a place at the movies. Take that CGI.