‘Loving Vincent’ extends cinematography with paint

In Loving Vincent, the first fully painted animated feature film, directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman mesmerize with endless series of frames of oil paintings turned into animation. Loving Vincent centers around the life of painter Vincent van Gogh. The film opens as van Gogh’s close friend, postmaster Joseph Roulin, enlists his son Armand to deliver a letter happened upon by a former landlord, meant for van Gogh’s brother, Theo. It has been a year since van Gogh’s suicide.

The film is suffused with artistic allusions to van Gogh – at one point an evening sky transports us to The Starry Night; at another, characters use props such as van Gogh’s Chair. The once familiar lurid interplay of van Gogh’s characteristic slapdash yet meticulous brushstrokes and primary colors competing for dominance becomes distorted. The resulting surreal backdrop guides the audience from one warped scene to the next in van Gogh paintings that are no longer van Gogh paintings. This lends the film a dreamlike quality that mirrors the uncertainty shrouding van Gogh’s death.

Armand is initially insensitive. He dismisses van Gogh as a madman because of rumors he has heard, as well as his impression of van Gogh due to his infamous ear-mutilation. Like Armand, we are at the mercy of the interpretations and accuracy of secondhand accounts. His first stop is Père Tanguy, van Gogh’s former paint supplier. His revelation that Theo is dead forces Armand to rethink his plan, since he has no forwarding address. However, Tanguy’s mention of Dr. Gachet as a possible link to Theo’s surviving widow and child leads to a domino effect of Armand tracking down leads and attempting to arrive at an understanding of van Gogh’s death.

We soon learn that Gachet treated van Gogh, bonded with him over a shared appreciation for art and regarded him as family. Despite being visibly shaken at the funeral, he showed no hesitation in taking some of van Gogh’s paintings as payment for an outstanding balance. Upon arriving at Auvers-sur-Oise to find the doctor, Armand receives a cold greeting from the housekeeper, Louise, who is quick to badmouth van Gogh. Told that he will have to wait two days to see Gachet, Armand tracks down the inn where van Gogh used to stay. Once there, he meets Adeline Ravoux, assuming a managerial role until her father returns. Instead of condemning van Gogh, however, she confesses her belief – shared by Armand’s father – that the facts of his suicide do not add up. Six weeks prior to his death, van Gogh was deemed “cured” by Gachet, was discharged from an asylum and appeared cheerful. The day before he died, he had even ordered more paint and told Adeline he had plans for thousands of paintings. Adeline suggests asking a nearby boatman for more information.

According to the boatman, van Gogh seldom came to the river to paint. Instead, he would pass the time with Gachet’s daughter, Marguerite. Later, Armand confronts Marguerite, who denies anything beyond formal acquaintance with van Gogh. She denies Armand’s theory that a heated argument with Gachet, in which he forbade van Gogh from seeing Marguerite, triggered van Gogh’s death. Besides the lack of apparent motive or suicide note, the mysterious death grows more bizarre when some residents claim it happened in the fields while others insist it happened in a barn. The weapon is also never found and van Gogh’s art equipment has disappeared. These details compound Adeline’s suspicion of Gachet, who, having been a military doctor, could have removed the bullet from a moribund van Gogh. Meanwhile, skeptics like Dr. Mazery, Joseph Roulin and Adeline stress the incongruity behind van Gogh’s settling for just a botched suicide attempt if he had really wanted to kill himself.

Loving Vincent triumphs not because it paints a sympathetic portrait of van Gogh, but because it suggests that leaning into one’s discomfort will not suffice. Derail discomforts, erect new ones and call them post-impressionism. Within the film, the recycled artistic allusions that border on iconography call to mind the familiar captions of these paintings. They are usually safe explanations that sensationalize the tragedy of van Gogh’s life or equate artistic ability with insanity. In the letter that finally makes it to Johanna, Theo’s widow, van Gogh writes, “Looking at the stars always makes me dream. … Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead … just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means. To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.”

The goal of the film, then, is not to point us to the reason behind van Gogh’s death. Instead, Loving Vincent urges the audience members to arrive at their own truth instead of scripting a definitive one for them. Van Gogh’s brilliance is no fixed point of constancy – it travels at light-speed.

‘Loving Vincent,’ the first fully hand-painted animated film, was illustrated by 115 artists and will be at Images Cinema until Thursday. Photo courtesy of the Athena Cinema.