The last days of Vincent Van Gogh are brought to the screen with the appropriate amount of visual flair in Loving Vincent, an animated tour de force where every frame has been hand painted in the style of the Dutch master – 65,000 paintings of optic splendour in motion.
Setting aside the artistry of the visuals, the central story of Loving Vincent plays like a fairly straight forward mystery thriller. The detective proxy in the narrative is the local postmaster’s son, which may sound a bit oblique, but within this context, it’s a logical device. We’re told that Van Gogh saw his local postmaster on a regular basis, given that he was sending letters off to his brother Theo on a daily basis.
The type of animation employed here is rotoscoping, where live-action footage is painted over, so some of the actors in this British-Polish co-production wil be recognisable to audiences. The postmaster is played by Chris O’Dowd, and his son, Armand, by Douglas Booth.
Armand has in his possession a letter addressed to Vincent, who has just died, apparently by suicide. It’s decided that the letter must subsequently be delivered to his brother Theo, except Theo too dies before Armand gets the chance to deliver the letter. So Armand visits the town of Auvers-sur-Oise , where Vincent passed away, having decided to give the letter to Vincent’s doctor.
Once he arrives in the small French town, he starts questioning the locals to find out more about Vincent’s death. And so begins a stream of contradictory stories, where we slowly piece together just who Vincent’s allies were and who may have been responsible for his death. Was it suicide or was it murder?
After a while one of the witnesses that Armand keeps returning to asks her own very valid question – isn’t it better to find out more about Vincent’s life than his death? There is so much that we don’t get to find out about this extraordinary man. We hear that he didn’t start painting until he was 28, which gave him only ten years to produce his extraordinary canon of work. And while it was clear that he was a tortured soul, the sporadic flashbacks to when he was alive, rendered in a more realist black and white style, don’t provide much in the way of details.
The result is a film that starts out dazzling us before the novelty slowly wears off and we begin to wonder if this is the most effective way to come at a story that is so obviously loaded with high drama and psychological complexity.
It’s a very impressive technical achievement from the directing duo of artist Dorota Kobiela and producer Hugh Welchman, and the wonderful imagery is paired with a lovely score by Clint Mansell, but the end result is slightly underwhelming dramatically.
Loving Vincent is currently screening at arthouse cinemas around Melbourne
Richard Leathem @dickiegee