Whether of a village postman or a starry sky, the paintings of Vincent van Gogh appear almost kinetic with emotion, and in the animated feature “Loving Vincent,” van Gogh’s brush strokes and subjects indeed move and come to life.
As with most risk-taking projects, it doesn’t wholly work. But the beautiful, novel movie (screening at the Clay) takes viewers into the paintings and, with them, the life of the postimpressionist Dutch artist.
Writer-directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman have created a biodrama in which 94 van Gogh paintings appear in forms extremely close to their original version. The painstaking animation process involves filming live-action material containing people and settings found in the selected paintings and then painting over the action, rotoscope style. Every frame is hand-painted.
Both a final-days and a detective story, the drama, co-written by Jacek Dehnel, transpires in Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise, France. It focuses on the events preceding van Gogh’s shooting death, generally regarded as a suicide, in 1890.
The primary action happens in 1891, when Armand Roulin (played by Douglas Booth) is instructed by his postmaster father (Chris O’Dowd) to deliver a letter written by the now-deceased Vincent van Gogh (Robert Gulaczyk) to his brother Theo.
Armand regards Vincent as a nutcase known for extreme behavior (an early scene features his infamous severed ear). But after meeting people who knew Vincent, including innkeeper’s daughter Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tomlinson), Dr. Gachet (Jerome Flynn), and daughter Marguerite Gachet (Saoirse Ronan), Armand changes his opinion.
Armand turns sleuth as questions arise: How could Vincent, who said he was feeling fine after his stay at Dr. Gachet’s clinic, have committed suicide? Was he murdered? His investigation yields more questions than answers.
The movie isn’t a penetrating character portrait.
While it addresses significant emotional issues such as Vincent’s feeling of being a burden to Theo, who was supporting his brother financially, it doesn’t explore what impelled Vincent to paint with such turbulent passion. It addresses Vincent’s mental illness only sketchily.
But van Gogh, having been fictionalized in a number of films — Vincente Minnelli’s “Lust for Life”; Robert Altman’s “Vincent and Theo”; Akira Kurosawa’s “Dreams” — receives thrillingly fresh treatment here.
From the celestial swirls in “The Starry Night” that move before our eyes to the appearance of a wayward crow, presumably having escaped from Vincent’s famous wheat-field landscape, Kobiela and Welchman’s brand of storytelling and the pair’s wholehearted admiration for van Gogh enable the film to transcend its shortcomings and succeed as a visually stunning, delightfully trippy, artistically unique animated pleasure.
The title refers not only to the filmmakers’ sentiments but to Vincent’s closing words, “Your Loving Vincent,” in letters to Theo, excerpts of which appear throughout the film.
three and a half stars
Starring Douglas Booth, Eleanor Tomlinson, Jerome Flynn, Saoirse Ronan
Written by Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Jacek Dehnel
Directed by Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman
Running time 1 hour, 34 minutes