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Loving Vincent is a stunning, if narratively flat, love letter to van Gogh

Despite its gorgeous visuals, Loving Vicent dramatizes biographical intrigues into a limp murder mystery that should perform well as a “van Gogh” crash course.

Paying more initial attention to the visuals of Loving Vincent, I almost jumped off my seat when seeing Clint Mansell's name in the intro credits. No other musician is more suitable for this movie than the adroit Mansell, with his knack to heighten characters’ tormenting descent into obsession. Whether it's about intellect in Pi, drug addiction in Requiem for a Dream, or love in The Fountain, he always delivers harrowing strings of melancholia. And obsession was what pervaded the life of famous Post-Impressionist artist Vincent van Gogh.

This movie is an assiduous labor of love for the artist, stemmed from an idea of Dorota Kobiela, who was profoundly moved by van Gogh’s letters to his supportive brother Theo. She and Oscar-winning animator Hugh Welchman co-direct this animated feature, ambitiously portraying the complexity of van Gogh’s inspirational, if tortured, life.

19th-century Dutch painter van Gogh remains special for the mainstream as much as for art buffs because of his symbolic life under strains of financial, domestic, and spiritual discontent. In the last ten years of his life, his psyche erupted with creative vigor into energetic texture by broad, expressive brushstrokes. The artist, torn between freedom of the unconfined outdoors and his internal madness, protested Impressionism's boring flatness and burden of objectivity. It seems like a chicken-and-egg story: his time for artistic endeavor caused many lapses into loneliness and anger; meanwhile, mental illness paved the way for subjective views to twirl, rearrange, and brighten up his objects. Kudos to theater actor Robert Gulaczyk for giving the animated van Gogh his eyes, morose and fiercely determined. Compared with an eager yet weary Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life and a manically intense Tim Roth in Vincent and Theo, Gulaczyk fits the themes of Loving Vincent.

Amidst hundreds of letters to Theo, there's one unsent letter left after Vincent died from a gunshot. Postmaster Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd), also one of his closest acquaintances, asks his eldest son Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), to bring it to the recipient, unaware that Theo too passed away. So Armand, whose portrait was accomplished by Van Gogh in 1888, takes up our audience surrogate—with the same yellow jacket and black fedora the world has been seeing him in. After several reluctant conversations, he plunges into an investigation regarding the question “How does a man go from being absolutely calm to suicidal in six weeks?”

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For the animation, the first step is to film real-life actors on soundstages and against green screens. A team of 125 painters, trained in a 180-hour course and using the footage as references, create 65,000 frames in van Gogh’s style that are put into animated sequences later. This process of experimental filmmaking requires goodwill, ambition, and more than enough technical ingenuity to finish.

Even for static images, Van Gogh's methodical and thick brushstrokes elevate their textures with a transcending sense of motion and multidimensionality through impasto. Detailed gestures and physical presence of the paint he used come to life. On this basis, the painters reinvigorate the orange and bright yellow halo of light sources—lamps and the moon. And circling, breezy coils of cornflower blue represent the turbulence inside van Gogh’s head. Landscapes come to life through small boats and their tottering movement on the river, through short strokes of green and gray leaves on the trees, and through gray sweeps of the sky, smokes, fields, and raindrops. I wanted to suggest imagining them on your own, but one shouldn't imagine when one can experience it in visual forms.

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Lots of van Gogh’s famous painting are incorporated into the shots and re-framed (which means being expanded) into the film’s aspect ratio. The most notable artworks are The Night Café, Café Terrace at Night, and Starry Night Over the Rhône into the settings of conversation, although the juxtaposed meaning of each event isn’t well thought-out. Flashbacks appear in black and white and resemble his realist style when Van Gogh started to paint seriously under the tutelage of his cousin-in-law.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a sufficient story to tell underneath the movie’s blooming visuals. It’s a case of Rashomon-meets-Citizen Kane in this investigative plot, moving through many people who spent their fleeting time and modest space with the late painter. Through the cooperative paint grinder Père Tanguy (John Sessions), Armand reaches Dr. Gachet’s house and meets his housekeeper Louise Chevalier (Helen McCrory), who becomes resent and hostile after hearing of van Gogh. The artist might or might not have a short-lived affection to Marguerite Gachet (Saoirse Ronan), which upsets both Louise and the doctor. Sinking deeper into this mystery, Armand stays at the same motel van Gogh lived and meets Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tomlinson), daughter of the motel owner, before hearing more from The Boatman (Aidan Turner) and The Old Peasant (James Greene). Those encounters all lead to, you guess it, the infamous René Secrétan (Marcin Sosinski), who is said to have shot van Gogh by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith in their 2011 book Van Gogh: The Life.

In a sense, this is the subjects of van Gogh’s paintings reflecting on their creator, and the result is conflicting accounts of his life. However, weak links are less propellant than viewers expect in a murder mystery. As Armand becomes fixated on this case, flashbacks are increasingly more of plot machination for a sleuthing biopic—and less of personal retellings of Van Gogh’s last days.

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Though the art style stays vivid and engaging, the plot dwindles, especially after the conversation between Armand and Marguerite. She admires the artist with all her heart and mind. She understands his inner battle and learns to appreciate him for who he is and what he loves to do. The movie intends to send a message that reads similar to “Don't dwell on his death out of sheer curiosity if you didn't care about him when he was alive and not well. Just appreciate his artistic brainchildren.” It should be a great conclusion, but the directors might feel that the audience need finality. This tiring narrative slogs throughout the third act—Armand meets Dr. Gachet (Jerome Flynn)—when the conversation becomes an obligation.

In the last scene, Armand reads the unsent letter to his father when the film is moving up to a starry, starry night. It’s a touching ending; Armand reads “...we cannot speak other than by our paintings...” Loving Vincent’s potential for delicacy is present in its stunning artworks, but dialogue prevails visual cues. Biographical intrigues are poorly dramatized into a limp murder mystery that should perform well as a “van Gogh” crash course for art devotees.