Loving Vincent (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): An impressionistic animation film a la Van Gogh

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Animation feature film “Loving Vincent” gave me one of the most colorful experiences of this year. Vividly and authentically recreating that recognizable oil painting style of Vincent van Gogh, the film puts us right into its stylish world filled with numerous striking visual moments to remember, and I certainly relished its every frame even though I often noticed its rather thin story and characterization.

The film revolves around Van Gogh’s tragic death and its aftermath. As many of you know, Van Goug suffered from his mental illness during his last years, and he eventually died on July 29th, 1890 in Auvers-sur-Oise, France shortly after his botched suicide attempt. While he did not receive much recognition during his life, his artistic genius was belatedly recognized after his death, and he has been regarded as one of the early pioneers of modern art since that.

The story begins with one night in Arles, France, where Van Gogh lived before he moved to Auvers-sur-Oise for treating his mental illness. We see the night sky based on “The Starry Night”, and then we are introduced to a young man named Armand Roulin (voiced by Douglas Booth), who is going through another drunken night in a local cafe whose appearance is apparently based on “The Night Café”, which is one of many notable paintings drawn by Van Gogh during his stay in Arles.

Armand is the son of Joseph Roulin (voiced by Chris O’Dowd), a local postman who was very close to Van Gogh (voiced by Robert Gulaczyk). In fact, he and his family members were the models for Van Gogh’s several portraits, and you will be surprised when you later see how faithful the film is to the style and texture of those impressive portraits. Armand and Joseph in the film really look like figures coming right out of those paintings, and so do many other characters in the film, who are also based on Van Gogh’s other notable portrait figures.

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As Joseph recollects one of Van Gogh’s worst days, we get a black-and-white flashback scene showing how Van Gogh’s friendship with his fellow painter Paul Gauguin came to a tumultuous end. When Gaugin came to Arles, everything looked fine at first, but then they did not get along with each other well in the end, and Gauguin eventually left to Van Gogh’s devastation. That led to that infamous incident involved with one of his ears, and, as more isolated and alienated from others as a consequence, Van Gogh came to leave Arles for the treatment of his mental illness.

It turns out that Joseph has Van Gogh’s last letter to Theo van Gogh, Van Gogh’s younger brother who had been his older brother’s main supporter for many years. Although it has been a year since Van Gogh died, Joshep requests Armand to deliver that letter to Theo, and Armand agrees to do that even though he did not like van Gogh a lot. To him, Van Gogh was a mere mad artist, and he could not understand what his father saw from Van Gogh.

Armand goes to Paris for meeting Theo, but he only comes to learn that Theo died not long after devastated by his older brother’s death. Julien “Père” Tanguy (voiced by John Sessions), an art supply shop owner who was one of few admirers of Van Gogh’s artistry and was memorably drawn in “Portrait of Père Tanguy”, tells Armand about how much Van Gogh struggled a lot before deciding to try painting – and how quickly he developed his own style and technique as hanging around various prominent artists in Paris including Monet and de Toulouse-Lautrec. Once he established his own style and technique, he never stopped after that, and he produced over 800 paintings over 8 years even while constantly struggling with poverty and mental illness.

After meeting Tanguy, Armand goes to Auvers-sur-Oise for meeting Dr. Gachet (voiced by Jerome Flynn), who was another person close to Van Gogh and was the model of “Portrait of Dr. Gachet”, which is incidentally one of the most valuable ones among Van Gogh’s works. While he cannot meet Dr. Gachet immediately, Armand meets several people who knew Van Gogh, and they give contradictory accounts on Van Gogh. To Dr. Gachet’s frigid housekeeper Louise Chevalier (voiced by Helen McCrory), Van Gogh was annoying nuisance to say the least, and she is rather glad that he is no longer with her employer. To Adeline Ravoux (voiced by Eleanor Tomlinson), the daughter of a local innkeeper, he was a nice gentle guy in contrast, and a local boatman (voiced by Aidan Turner) agrees to that while implying that there was something going on between him and Marguerite Gachet (voiced by Saoirse Ronan), the young daughter of Dr. Gachet.

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As getting to know more about Van Gogh and the questionable circumstance surrounding his suicide attempt, Armand cannot help but wonder whether Van Gogh really tried to kill himself. As a matter of fact, Van Gogh said in his letter sent to Joseph shortly before his death that he felt better than before, and it seems possible to Armand that there was a foul play at that time.

Now you may get more intrigued, but I must tell you that the ‘mystery’ in the film is more or less than a plot device to hold our attention during its 94-minute running time, and you may be disappointed as it eventually comes to its anti-climactic arrival point. When Armand later comes to meet Dr. Gachet, he does give Armand an answer, but it is not so far from what most of us know about Van Gough, and we are only reminded again of what a great (and tortured) artist Van Gogh was.

Overall, “Loving Vincent” does not provide anything illuminating to you especially if you have the basic knowledge about Van Gogh’s life and career, but it is still an interesting visual experience, and I really admire what is achieved on the screen by a team of more than 100 painters under the direction of Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman. According to the IMDB trivia, each of the film’s 65,000 frames is an oil painting on canvas, and their enormous efforts are surely evident on the screen. While it is a little dissatisfying in terms of story and characters, the film is a special piece of work to be appreciated nonetheless, and I think it is worthwhile to watch it on a big screen.

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