When one says the words “struggling artist,” perhaps there has been no one human being to personify this than Vincent van Gogh. For over a century, the Dutch-born Post-Impressionist painter has fascinated so many because of the beautiful art that he produced, as well as the fact that he never achieved fame until he had passed away due to suicide brought on by mental illness. Vincent's paintings, ranging from self portraits to landscapes to interpretations of the night sky or even a vase of sunflowers have since been recognized as artistic masterpieces, further highlighting the irony of his sad demise at just 36 years of age.
Van Gogh and his art have made their way into popular culture, as evidenced by Kirk Douglas' portrayal of him in 1956's Lust for Life, Don McLean's 1971 ballad “Vincent,” and even the well-loved 2010 Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor” with Tony Curran as the artist. In fact, a recent award-winning Leo Burnett campaign for Air BNB at the Art Institute of Chicago centered around Van Gogh's 1888 painting of a bedroom. In the case of the animated film Loving Vincent directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, it marks a unique attempt at basically bringing Van Gogh's art to life while examining the events that led to his tragic end.
The film chronicles Postman Joseph Roulin (Chris O'Dowd) requesting that his son Armand (Douglas Booth) deliver Van Gogh's (Robert Gulaczyk) last letter to his brother Theo. Armand belatedly learns that Theo too has died after Vincent, leading Armand to visit Auvers-sur-Oise, where Vincent once stayed with the man who took him in after his release from an asylum, Dr. Paul Gachet (Jerome Flynn). As he interviews several people around Auvers, Armand learns that Vincent passed away in an inn owned by the family of Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tomlinson), was friends with Dr. Gachet's daughter Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan), was mocked mercilessly by local boys, and struggled with alcoholism and depression.
As he tries to determine if the gunshot that felled Vincent was self-inflicted or something more sinister, Armand learns that Vincent had complicated relationships with Dr. Gachet, Marguerite, and even Theo. Though not completely convinced that Vincent committed suicide, Armand gives Vincent's letter to Dr. Gachet in order to have it sent to Theo's widow, Johanna, who in turn thanks the Roulin's for giving her a semblance of closure.
At the beginning of Loving Vincent, the audience is notified that the film is the result of over 100 painters who painted oil on canvas, as Van Gogh himself did in his lifetime. While watching the film, one is immediately immersed in this kind of moving canvas, a staggering accomplishment that basically brings one's mind onto Van Gogh's canvas and easel, as some of the artist's paintings are suddenly vividly seen moving and animated. As the movie progresses, the audience's minds eventually adjust to this art style, though that does not lessen the fascination with how it was accomplished in the first place.
The end credits reveal that some of the characters in the film took inspiration from unnamed people in Van Gogh's paintings, and the filmmakers were able to bring those, as well as identified subjects in Van Gogh art, into one narrative. Truthfully, in parts where Flynn's Dr. Gachet and Ronan's Marguerite were onscreen, the animation looked similar to the classic “rotoscoping” effect used by animators such as Max Fleischer and Walt Disney did in the 1930s. Some parts of the film could have been paced better, particularly near the end, but the main plot of Armand's investigation and examination into Vincent's life were still engaging.
For anyone who has ever been fascinated with Van Gogh's life or have been mesmerized by any of his works of art, Loving Vincent is a must-see, if only to behold how the artist's work can be seen in animated form. Not everyone can visit the Musee d'Orsay, the Art Institute of Chicago, or the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, but watching Loving Vincent provides an interesting examination of the man's life and why so many regard him as the father of modern art.