You often hear the claim that a film is “unlike anything you’ve seen before,” but in the case of the animated work Loving Vincent, there’s no other way to describe it. Taking the paintings of Vincent van Gogh as its primary visual inspiration, 125 professional oil painters from all over the world came to studios in Poland and Greece to paint by hand the roughly 65,000 frames that make up this movie, directed by noted Polish animator Dorota Kobiela (who co-wrote with Jacek Dehnel) and Hugh Welchman. Every frame of this film is an oil painting that looks like it was done by Van Gogh himself (making Loving Vincent the first-ever fully painted feature), with many an exercise in bringing a number of his actual paintings to life.
Not knowing exactly how the film was pieced together, it would appear the painters had video of the actors acting out the parts for reference (the characters look like the actors who portray them), which takes nothing away from this remarkable achievement. The story revolves around a mysterious letter from Vincent (Robert Gulaczyk) to his brother Theo (Cezary Lukaszewicz), discovered about a year after Vincent’s death (either by suicide or foul play—the film leaves that open) by his mailman (Chris O’Dowd), who charges his son Armand (Douglas Booth) to travel to Theo’s home and deliver the letter to him.
Traveling to the Netherlands, Armand discovers that Theo has also died. And so the mystery of what to do with the letter takes him through a succession of friends and acquaintances who bring into focus the final months of Van Gogh’s life. Since Vincent was keen on painting those around him, many of the characters in Loving Vincent are variations on some of his most famous portraits, with the locations looking remarkably similar to his landscape work. We meet other artists who knew him or at least crossed his path (including Paul Gaugin and Toulouse Lautrec), as well as those that befriended him during his many dark depressions. One Dr. Gachet (Jerome Flynn) and his charming daughter Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan) both hold onto secrets about their relationship with Van Gogh.
I have no idea how much of this story is factual or if any of the characterizations of Van Gogh’s circle of friends are in even close to accurate, and in the end, it really doesn’t matter. Loving Vincent is a fairly simple detective story visually told in a manner that honors the artist at the center of the work. The result is an animated film that moves and breathes and vibrates with life. It’s a singular achievement that may come up short in the writing, but never lets us down as a visual feast.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.