Loving Vincent recreates van Gogh’s artwork in animated oil paintings

If painters express themselves through their art, biographers are at a disadvantage: they may capture the person, but their message might prove harder. Unless, of course, you make that message the medium. Loving Vincent, a new take on the life and work of Vincent van Gogh, manages just that by employing an entirely novel approach: It’s a film created entirely with oil paintings on canvas, arranged into moving pictures that pay homage to the “father of modern art.”

And truly, the visuals are stunning. In a never-before-used animation technique, 125 painters adapted van Gogh’s most famous works over 6 years to fit the narrative, creating 65,000 tableaux for the characters, animated based on footage of real actors. Paintings like Sunflowers or Portrait of Dr. Gachet blaze in bright colors, often leaving two-dimensional space behind as the camera pans around to establish the scene.

Even though the technique is impressive, the crime drama plot is somewhat uneven and the dialogue bland at times. Especially in the beginning, Loving Vincent is overloaded and disjointed, relying too heavily on excessive flashbacks and extended exposition. The son of a postman, Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), is tasked with delivering a recently rediscovered letter from Vincent van Gogh, dead for a year at this point, to his brother Theo. As Roulin discovers, Theo died half a year after Vincent, making his trusted physician, Paul Gachet, the next-in-line recipient. While awaiting him in Auvers-sur-Oise, van Gogh’s final residence, he starts talking to locals about the painter’s death. Many things seemingly don’t add up and Roulin, initially wary of his task, begins to obsess about uncovering the truth.

“You want to know so much about his death, what do you know about his life?” an infuriated Marguerite Gachet (Saoirse Ronan), a confidant of van Gogh, throws at Armand. She is right: Roulin is chasing the ghost of someone he can’t grasp, conveyed beautifully by the confusion and aggression of Booth’s painted alter ego.

Nobody will ever truly understand what happened to van Gogh in those final days. Loving Vincent doesn’t try to, offering a paean to the deceased instead, a checklist of biographical information and famous pictures to revisit. Only toward the end, when Roulin starts facing his own ghosts and zeroes in on his final suspects, does the movie really grab the viewer and give food for thought. And like the master’s paintings, when Loving Vincent finally does, it stays with you well after the credits have rolled.

Starts Dec 29, Votiv Kino. 9., Währinger Strasse 12. votivkino.at