“Loving Vincent” bring us into the beautifully imperfect world of Van Gogh

Image courtesy of BreakThru Films.

Vincent Van Gogh painted for eight years of his life, one more year than the seven it took Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman — as well as a team of 100 artists — to complete a film in his honour. Loving Vincent, an oil-painted noir, is a crime thriller cast in thousands of hand painted frames mimicking the great artist’s style. It chronicles a historical fiction that takes its entire ensemble from Van Gogh’s portraits.

One year after Van Gogh’s death, Armand Roulin, at the instruction of his postmaster father, is tasked with delivering the last letter Vincent prepared for his brother Theo. The journey takes Roulin through a series of landscapes familiar to Van Gogh, now forever immortalized in the hallowed halls of art history, first in Paris and then the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise.

What starts out as a postage job for Roulin turns, first reluctantly and then obsessively, into a scramble to piece together the final days of Van Gogh’s life.

The brilliance of Loving Vincent is in how the images pour off the screen. Shot first in live action, each frame is painstakingly transformed into a masterpiece in its own right. The effect is as if a gallery of Van Gogh’s work leaped off the wall and enveloped you in their world. The style is as singular as the artist it draws from.

But so too is the intention behind the style. While Roulin desperately seeks to understand the psychology of Van Gogh, he’s magically unaware of the dramatic irony all around him. In a story about characters taking their best guess at how one man saw the world, we’re given the opportunity to see what they, trapped in his paintings as opposed to observing them, can only prod at.

The driving argument behind the film is that Van Gogh’s short, lonely and tortured life was lined by his ability to penetrate and extract beauty from all around him. It’s this ability that propelled him into the highest echelons of artistic legend. From Roulin’s bright yellow jacket down to the dramatic and gorgeous gashes that mark the falling of rain, the audience is never allowed to forget it.

If there is a bitter note in the film, it’s that the story does not live up to its aesthetic ambition. Roulin’s journey boils down to a series of conversations that stick together a little too conveniently and unnaturally. It’s in moments when the weakness of the story’s narrative feels like a reluctant excuse to show beautiful images that one stops noticing the beautiful images. These moments stick out like mistaken brushstrokes on a canvas not painted over.

While it’s not a perfect film, Loving Vincent is triumphant in its goal to bring us into the beautifully imperfect world of Van Gogh. After the credits roll, you might just be compelled to take your walk home a tad slower than usual. If you’re so lucky as to be under a starry sky when doing so, you’ll find it rather difficult not to stop and look up. If that’s not the goal of any examination of Van Gogh, I’m not sure what is.