The very fact that a film like Loving Vincent exists is a noteworthy achievement in and of itself. Composed entirely of oil paintings in the style of van Gogh stitched together to animate its story, the international co-production took 125 artists seven years to complete — and that’s on top of the fact that a live-action film was shot first for reference material. What’s perhaps more impressive is that the film transcends its gimmick to tell a compelling story that would be worth watching even if its remarkable visual accomplishments didn’t justify its existence on their own (which they absolutely do).
On the basis of the title, one could be excused for expecting a piece of melodramatic hero worship along the lines of Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 biopic Lust for Life — but co-writers-directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman take an altogether different approach. There are no overblown scenes of Kirk Douglas amputating his ear or penning an anguished suicide note to be found in Loving Vincent. Instead, the narrative takes the form of something like a detective story, with an investigation of the Dutch artist’s final days sparked by an undelivered letter to his brother Theo.
The title itself is taken from van Gogh’s signature on that letter, and the film follows the efforts of a shiftless young man named Armand (Douglas Booth) to deliver it at the behest of his father, Arles postmaster Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd). Both men were painted by van Gogh, as were many of the people Armand encounters during his quest to find an appropriate recipient for the correspondence once he discovers that Theo died shortly after Vincent. Structurally, the narrative boils down to interviews with the characters that populated the artist’s final days in the northern French village of Auvers.
Everything comes together a bit like Citizen Kane meets the rotoscoped stylization of Waking Life, and its use of the investigatory conceit serves a very interesting purpose. Namely, Loving Vincent espouses a theory developed by Pulitzer Prize-winning biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith with their 2011 book “Van Gogh: The Life,” in which they posit that the artist was a victim of manslaughter or murder rather than suicide. The film declines to make any definitive statement on the veracity of this postulation, but it’s an intriguing theory with some distinctly believable evidentiary support. That suicide note in Lust for Life? Never happened.
Loving Vincent is an artistic accomplishment of unquestionable aesthetic merit. Fans of van Gogh will be blown away by the technical virtuosity and almost absurd logistical coordination that went into this production — and it is absolutely, unequivocally gorgeous to look at. While the script is occasionally prone to slavish idolatry, the film’s unique visual approach to its subject marks it as a singularly distinctive screen dramatization of van Gogh’s tragically short life. It’s certainly not a perfect film by any stretch, but it is first and foremost a labor of love. And as far as passion projects go, Kobiela and Welchman have created something so genuine, so sincere, that it’s hard to imagine van Gogh being anything other than pleased. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, some violence, sexual material and smoking. Opens Friday at Fine Arts Theatre.