Forget Van Gogh’s ear. The real question is what happened to his heart. Reportedly, six weeks before his presumptive suicide, Vincent Van Gogh was calm, stable, and poised to finally glean some recognition for his work. Soon after his death, his devoted brother Theo also passed away. Sadly, Van Gogh’s great friend Joseph Roulin, the postmaster of Arles, did not know that. He tasks his somewhat dissolute son Armand with the task of forwarding Van Gogh’s final letter to his brother. As Roulin reluctantly pursues his grim duty, he finally starts to appreciate the artist he had always dismissed as a mad tramp. He will also start to ask questions about Van Gogh’s death in Dorota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman’s absolutely stunning animated feature Loving Vincent (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
A lot of attention will justly focus on what a technical and artistic feat Loving Vincent represents. It does hand-drawn animation one better as the first film consisting entirely of hand-painted cells, employing oil based paints, in a style directly based on that of Van Gogh. Yet, there is also real acting to be seen throughout the film, thanks to a sort of inverse rotoscoping process, in which stills of the cast were painted over and enriched by the team of animating painters.
Frankly, seeing the iconic faces of the Roulins, Dr. Gachet, Pere Tanguy, and the Zoave will raise the hair on the back of your neck. Each time Kobiela and Welchman cleverly integrate one of Van Gogh’s masterpieces into the film, we feel an urge to applaud. Yet, Loving Vincent is more than a visual spectacle. The narrative, co-written by Jacek Dehnel, and the co-directors, is deeply resonant. Essentially, Loving Vincent becomes an Impressionist Citizen Kane, with the letter (signed “your loving Vincent”) replacing Rosebud as the Macguffin driving the investigation into the misunderstood title character.
Even though he never exactly appears on-screen, Douglas Booth gives a terrific performance as the increasingly guilt-ridden and morally outraged Armand Roulin, always seen wearing that impossibly yellow blazer. His relationship with his postmaster father (nicely brought to life by Chris O’Dowd) is surprisingly poignant and ultimately redemptive. The film even supplies some closure thanks to Dr. Gachet, Van Gogh’s jealous patron, layered over a haunting performance from Ripper Street’s Jerome Flynn.