High art meets mystery in Loving Vincent

Robert Gulaczyk as Vincent van Gogh. Courtesy of Mongrel Media.
Robert Gulaczyk as Vincent van Gogh. Courtesy of Mongrel Media.

Advertised as the first fully painted feature film, “Loving Vincent” is as ambitious as they come. Of the film’s 65,000 frames, each appears as an oil painting on canvas, using the same post-impressionist style Van Gogh employed. Considering it took a team of 115 painters to complete this transformation, its production alone is a tremendous achievement.

Set one year after the famous painter’s mysterious suicide, Armand Roulin – whose family posed for a series of portraits in 1888 and 1889 – leaves home to return Van Gogh’s last letter to his brother, Theo. Before long, he learns that Theo too has passed, so is sent searching for a recipient elsewhere.

Like the inside of an art gallery, the film features familiar scenes taken right from Van Gogh’s work. Casual fans and enthusiasts will be satisfied to see such set pieces as Cafe Terrace at Night, Wheatfield with Crows and The Yellow House.

Armand’s adventure leads him straight to Auvers-sur-Oise, the final resting place of Vincent Van Gogh. Here he encounters a number of people, all of which posed at one point or another for the painter. As the story unfolds, Armand unravels the riddle surrounding his death, while also tapping into who he really was.

For all the film’s artistry, the way in which it integrates its actors into the overlay is especially impressive. Unlike animation, each scene was originally shot in front of a specially constructed set, designed to look like Vincent’s paintings, or against green screen. Afterwards, it was up to the animators to transform the footage into an active motif.

What we’re left with is an amazing recreation, where both the actors and the people they are portraying are indivisible. Postman Joseph Roulin, who is played by Irish actor Chris O’Dowd, sits in as Armand’s father and confidant of Vincent Van Gogh. Despite an enormous beard distorting his face, O’Dowd’s eyes and expressions show through, all the while appearing totally true to Joseph’s actual appearance.

The same can be said for the rest of the cast also. Armand, who is played by Douglas Booth, looks so similar to the source material in his yellow coat and tilted hat, they might as well be brothers.

But in the face of the film’s artistic achievements, the story is somewhat underwhelming. As Armand uncovers the who, what, where, when and why, he is hastily ushered between scenes, hell-bent on meeting as many people as possible. It quickly becomes clear that these moments of fanfare are more important than the mystery at large.

Van Gogh was a man disturbed – he is quite literally the example used on the Wikipedia page for “Tortured Artist” – but the investigation of his suicide turns into a 90 minute game of telephone. No doubt there are many colourful characters and some meetings more meaningful than others, but plot isn’t the film’s strong suit.

What is though is setting and tone. Along with the film’s incredible sense of complexion, the soothing soundtrack creates even more texture. Most famous for this work with director Darren Aronofsky (“Requiem for a Dream,” “The Wrestler,” “Black Swan”), Clint Mansell has been credited with writing the score. From beginning to end, the poignant piano emphasizes the emotional complications put up with by the master painter.

In his last letter, Van Gogh pondered that “We cannot speak other than by our paintings.” In this artistic tribute, “Loving Vincent” happens to prove his point.