There have already been quite a few films about Vincent van Gogh, ranging from the heroic (Lust for Life) to the dramatic (Vincent & Theo) to the enigmatic (Maurice Pialat’s masterly Van Gogh). All of them offer up their own interpretations of the artist’s brief and tumultuous life, which ended abruptly from suicide at the age of 37, after he had completed roughly 800 paintings in the span of less than 10 years.
While such movies attempted to portray the painter through his actions and words, none have quite been able to reveal the man through his work. Such is the unique feat of Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s entirely hand-painted biopic Loving Vincent, a film that uses van Gogh’s canvases as both form and function, animating them into a saga tracing his last days in Arles, where he made his greatest artist breakthroughs, to his stay in Auvers-sur-Oise, where he died in 1890 after shooting himself in the torso.
Or so goes the story. In this Polish-U.K. co-production, which took nearly seven years to complete, the death of van Gogh (played by Polish theater actor Robert Gulaczyk) turns into a murder mystery that revisits his suicide from multiple angles, with a young man named Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), who was the subject of several portraits by the artist, serving as both detective and narrator. It’s a plot device that keeps the suspense afloat but can also feel somewhat manufactured, if not downright hammy, at times, turning the allusive van Gogh into the protagonist of a garden-variety crime novel.
Still, there are enough traces of the artist himself in the movie, from his many paintings to the famous letters he wrote to his brother and benefactor Theo, to please both experts and newbies, who should enjoy watching his work come to life onscreen. Well-received by audiences for its Annecy world premiere, Loving Vincent has already racked up enough foreign pre-sales to guarantee steady exhibition after its fest run.
Employing many of the tools of a standard TV thriller, from flashbacks to reenactments to scenes viewed from van Gogh’s troubled POV, the script (by the directors and Jacek Dehnel) has Roulin fils traveling from Arles to Auvers at the request of his father, postmaster Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd), to deliver a last letter to Theo. But when Armand arrives up north, he finds that Theo is dead as well, having succumbed to the effects of syphilis after being crushed by his brother’s demise.
Piqued by a curiosity that doesn’t always seem justified, Armand decides to stay in town to find out what really happened to Vincent. He receives different versions of the story from various subjects of van Gogh paintings, from legendary Impressionist art supplier Pere Tanguy (John Sessions) to Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tomlinson), whose family ran the local inn where van Gogh stayed and eventually died, to Marguerite Gachet (Saoirse Ronan) and her father, Dr. Gachet (Jerome Flynn), who treated the artist during his turbulent final months, all the way up to his deathbed.
Each character has a diverging opinion of the painter and what may have happened to him, and in that sense Loving Vincent does offer up a fairly complex portrait of a man whose more inexplicable acts — the film kicks off with the infamous ear incident in Arles — will never be fully understood. But there’s also a feeling that the filmmakers have concocted their whodunit narrative simply as a means to an end, with that end being to showcase van Gogh’s oeuvre in a way that has never been done before.
To that extent, the painstaking work done by Kobiela and Welchman to turn some of the artist’s most prized canvases into animated scenes can be impressive to behold. Paintings such as The Night Cafe, Wheatfield with Crows, Portrait of Dr. Gachet and Starry Night Over the Rhone were reproduced by a team of animators over a two-year period, using live-action sequences captured in front of green screens and then transforming them during postproduction into van Gogh’s living, breathing subjects, like zombies coming back to haunt us from a Post-Impressionistic past.
Purists of art history may take issue with such a technique of transmutation, as well as with the movie’s potboiler of a plot, but there’s no doubt that the directors have taken their subject to heart. In that sense, Loving Vincent, which is a title inspired by the way van Gogh signed his letters to Theo, is appropriate enough for an artistic homage (or is it hodgepodge?) that admirably tries to resurrect the painter through the glorious work he left behind.
Production companies: Breakthru Films, Trademark Films
Cast: Douglas Booth, Jerome Flynn, Robert Gulaczyk, Helen McCrory, Chris O’Dowd, Saoirse Ronan
Directors: Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman
Screenwriters: Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Jacek Dehnel
Producers: Hugh Welchman, Ivan MacTaggart, Sean Bobbit
Executive producers: Claudia Bluemhuber, Gerd Schepers, Ian Hutchinson, Charlotte Ubben, Laurie Ubben, Edwart Noeltner, David Parfit
Cinematographers: Tristan Oliver, Lukasz Zal
Production designer: Matthew Button
Costume designer: Dorota Roqueplo
Editors: Justyna Wiersynska, Dorota Kobiela
Composer: Clint Mansell
Casting director: Jenny Duffy
Head of Painting: Piotr Dominak
VFX supervisor: Lukasz Mackiewicz
Venue: Annecy Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Cinema Management Group