Loving Vincent
Directed by: Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman
Starring: Douglas Booth, Jerome Flynn, Saoirse Ronan
PG-13 for mature thematic elements, some violence, sexual material and smoking
1 hr. 34 min.

I came across this film by accident. Maybe divine accident, if you believe in that sort of stuff. A film with 65,000 frames handcrafted by 125 classically trained artists. Could this type of animated feature be possible? I had to go see for myself.

Polish and British artists Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman have created a genuine Van Gogh mystery using his own style and paintings as a backdrop for the story itself. The result is 94 minutes of Van Gogh’s Impressionism washing over the screen.

Taking characters from Van Gogh’s paintings, Kobiela and Welchman delve into the mystery of the artist’s death. Tradition has it that he committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest with a revolver. Kobiela and Welchman explore another theory: that Van Gogh might have been murdered.

In a small French town where Van Gogh once lived, Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), an aimless young man, is sent by his father, Postman Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd), to deliver a letter written by Vincent to his brother Theo.

Since Van Gogh has been dead for a year, Armand wonders why his father wants him to do something so pointless. After all, who cares about such an obscure, disturbed artist? A man so unhinged that he once delivered his severed ear to a local prostitute.

Still, Armand travels to Auvers-sur-Oise, a suburb of northwestern Paris and the village where Van Gogh died. His task: to personally deliver Vincent’s missing letter to Van Gogh’s brother Theo.

What Armand discovers is twofold.

First, Theo is dead. Armand must now decide to whom he will deliver the letter.

Second, among the villagers at Auvers-sur-Oise, Vincent remains a topic of rowdy discussion. Gossip and rumors are rife. Bitterness over Vincent’s artistry divides the working class and the rich. Suspicions and finger-pointing about Vincent’s death are rampant, so much so that Armand is pulled into the fray.

His curiosity about Vincent inspires him to launch his own investigation, and what he discovers is not just a whodunit murder mystery but a hard-fought debate about the artist himself. Madman or genius? Gentle soul or narcissistic painter? Devoted brother or callous waster of Theo’s resources?

While the story is fictional, the study of Van Gogh’s life and art in this film is as real as the paintings themselves. Kobiela and Welchman have created a type of layering in which the characters and landscapes are constantly shifting in the same way that Van Gogh used his art as a canvas for scenes painted in the present, but not quite. Physical, but wavering. Full of light, but out of focus and filled with lines and circles, oscillating with color.

The actors are real, but their appearances vary, depending on the frame’s relationship to color and light. The result is a Van Gogh style of animation, one in which landscapes and people exist but are not quite what they appear to be, as if Van Gogh explored the universe just beyond the universe. So the film searches for the Van Gogh beyond the Van Gogh, the artist beyond the brush.

Every so often, I am completely surprised by what can be created on film. Loving Vincent is a painting done in remembrance of a complicated man who saw the world differently than most. Flawed, controversial, turbulent . . . and yet he gave us a singular vision of his mind’s eye.

That vision is captured in this film. It’s Van Gogh, but not quite, and yet about as close as you will ever come to meeting him. It allows you to escape the museum where his paintings hang and sit with the artist himself. In the last scene, when Van Gogh stares back at the viewer, you will realize that the two of you have finally been introduced. If you think his paintings are unsettling, wait till you look him square in the eye.