‘Loving Vincent’ transports viewers to the world as van Gogh envisioned it

‘Loving Vincent’

FilmScene — Through Thursday, Jan. 11

Vincent (Robert Gulaczyk). — video still

Painted entirely in oils, Loving Vincent is art set in motion. Although it’s worth seeing just to sit back and admire the swirling brush strokes, it doesn’t rely on the novelty or gimmick of its production. The plot and characters drew me in and by the end I found the story tugging on my heartstrings, which I honestly had not expected it to do.

The movie delves into Vincent van Gogh’s last days before his suicide and the mystery surrounding his death — bringing up questions about mental illness, artistic genius and the cost of following one’s own path.

The experience of the movie itself was magical, like walking into an oil painting. At first, that was slightly disorienting and distracting. But, perhaps anticipating this, the movie gives you time to just sit back and watch the pretty paints swirl before it jumps too deep into plot points that require you to pay closer attention.

Loving Vincent is the culmination of seven years of work — painters reportedly spent up to 10 days painting just one second of film. The film is made up of 65,000 frames, hand painted by 125 artists. And it is jawdroppingly beautiful. All of that work has been rewarded with a film that transports viewers into the world of van Gogh, as he envisioned it.

Marguerite Gachet (Saoirse Ronan) at the piano. — video still

Each frame was based on live-action film recorded with a talented cast that includes two-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn), Jerome Flynn (Game of Thrones), Chris O’Dowd (The IT Crowd), Helen McCrory (Harry Potter) and Douglas Booth (Jupiter Ascending). Although it was briefly distracting that a movie set in France is full of actors with British and Irish accents, the fact that the painted characters on screen were immensely expressive comes down to the talent of these actors, who were able to convey emotion and personality despite layers of paint.

Loving Vincent, writer and director Dorota Kobiela’s feature film debut, follows the journey of Armand Roulin — whom we first meet getting into a bar fight — as he attempts to deliver a letter written by Vincent van Gogh to his brother, Theo, just before his death. Initially embarrassed by his father’s friendship with van Gogh, who was ridiculed as a mad man after the ear-cutting-off episode, Roulin’s assumptions about his dad’s friend are slowly overturned.

On discovering that Theo van Gogh also died shortly after Vincent van Gogh’s suicide, Roulin’s task becomes more complicated and he attempts to find a new recipient for the letter by heading to Auvers-sur-Oise, where van Gogh spent his final weeks under the care of Doctor Gachet.

On arriving in Auvers, Roulin walks right into a town on edge following the artist’s death, which was ensconced in mystery — the artist had seemed happy and busily at work, his wound was to the abdomen (unusual for a suicide victim), and neither the gun used nor the paint supplies that he had with him were ever found.

Video still

Although Roulin’s beliefs and assumptions about people suffering from depression or other mental illnesses are sometimes cringe worthy — as is his character’s drinking and disrespect for other people he encounters — he grows over the course of his journey. He develops an understanding of the complexity of human emotions and interactions. By the end, I was rooting for him.

Once immersed in and adjusted to the world, I found myself pulled into the mystery Roulin is investigating — almost in the style of a mystery novel, interviewing one person after another and slowly piecing together the story of van Gogh’s last days. But viewers shouldn’t expect to walk away with the case neatly tied up à la Poirot or a pulpy mystery novel. This is the real-life story of an artist, his struggle and the paintings he left behind.

The movie celebrates the humanity of an artist often reduced to an enigma, frequently incorporating the artist’s own words in the form of his letters, which were published after his death. The title itself is taken from a frequent signature on his letters to his brother: “Your loving Vincent.”

Lovers of van Gogh’s work will delight in catching the many references to his art: A number of the characters and settings in the film are taken directly from his paintings. Not a van Gogh expert? Don’t worry — the credits at the end show some of the original paintings and give additional factoids, so you can walk away and impress all your friends with some van Gogh trivia. Even had I not enjoyed the story unfolding before me, I would have walked out of the movie with a greater appreciation for van Gogh as an artist — and a plan to buy a copy of his published letters.

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