The subjects of Vincent Van Gogh’s masterpieces come to startling, vivid, and enchanting life in LOVING VINCENT, a film of enormous beauty and sharp insight. Created by rotoscoping actors, and then painting each animation cell by hand in oils, the result is an immersive experience of how the artist saw the world while also questioning how and why he met his untimely death. To say it is a unique achievement is an understatement and a disservice.
The story follows Arles resident Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), the feckless son of the town’s postman (Chris O’Dowd). Tasked by his father with delivering a recently discovered letter the artist wrote to his brother, Theo, the young man journeys to Auvers-sur-Oise. While tracking down Theo’s address, he gets to know the inhabitants of that village, each of whom have a different take on the eccentric painter. As the investigation progresses, Armand becomes more invested in exactly what happened to Van Gogh in his last days, and increasingly suspicious of the official verdict of suicide.
Starting from the first image, the familiar is rendered new. The paint itself seems sentient, brush strokes moving with an energy that can’t be contained and that embody the very spirit of the artist himself. The starry night becomes a kinetic sculpture of clouds and sky. The sun becomes a whirlpool. The flame of a bedside candle does battle against the darkness around it.
This alone would make the film remarkable, but the mystery that it proposes about how and why Van Gogh died of a gunshot wound after being successfully treated for his depression has a compelling suspense and intrigue. The cast of characters, who seamlessly step out of their portraits and into the story, are fully realized, with complexity and foibles that make them as much a mystery to themselves, Armand, and to us as the mystery of Van Gogh’s death. Flashbacks, presented in black-and-white, give us many versions of Van Gogh, while the village gossip gives us just as many versions of the people Armand meets. As Van Gogh, playing out so many scenarios, Robert Gulaczyk, is sublimely enigmatic, fierce and kindly, placid and impatient, but always with an intensity that informs his every action, and the mesmerizing blue eyes.
LOVING VINCENT is an animated film that breaks new ground with what that medium can do. A gripping story made for adult sensibilities achieves real transcendence.