Vincent Van Gogh is surprisingly elusive in “Loving Vincent,” and not just because the film begins a year after the artist shoots himself in a field in Auvers. It struggles to strike a balance between art project and narrative to explore one of art history’s most complex figures and, in the process, loses the man behind his own brushstrokes.
The viewers who come for the art project won’t be disappointed. Painting in Van Gogh’s signature bold impasto style, 125 artists crafted 65,000 frames with painfully pretty precision to fill the 94 minute film. That alone is enough to herald it a radiant success.
But viewers who come for the story will find something more along the lines of Edward Hopper than Vincent Van Gogh. Unemployed, perpetually drunk Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) is tasked by his postmaster father (Chris O’Dowd) to deliver a single remaining letter from the artist to his brother, Theo. When he discovers Theo died six months after Vincent, Roulin travels to Auvers to find a worthy recipient of the letter.
As he begins to doubt the varying accounts of the artist’s suicide, the suddenly righteous Roulin turns his inquiries into interrogations, erupting in lines like “How come you lied when you’ve got nothing to hide?” while a violin draws out the suspense. It’s no wonder the real Roulin eventually became a member of the police force.
If his visit to Doctor Mazery (Bill Thomas), a comical prototype for the modern forensic scientist, wasn’t enough, the frequent flashbacks, painted in hackneyed black and white and altered as Roulin acquires new accounts from his cast of suspects, firmly cements the film’s tone as closer to film noir than biography.
Because of the dramatic buildup of the mystery, the lack of any definite conclusion impairs the film’s ending. Marguerite Gachet (Saoirse Ronan) even responds to the debate of murder versus suicide by saying that it doesn’t matter — “the result is the same –” making it even harder to anticipate what answers the film might propose and the degree to which they should impact the viewer.
The occasionally disjointed sound mixing makes the plot even harder to follow. Bits of dialogue become indistinguishable in crowds and through thick, occasionally slurred, accents; the inability to read characters’ lips through broad brushstrokes certainly doesn’t help.
By using such a revered style, “Loving Vincent” struggles to harmonize the strikingly human and the fleetingly painterly. Despite adding breathtaking emphasis to water, wind, light and oh so much cigarette smoke, the over-stylization at times reads too rudimentary for human expression.
Instead of creating the conventional caricatures of animation, the filmmakers recorded the actors’ facial and body movements with their voices and used stills to create the paintings. Each character, accordingly, is endowed with rich, nuanced mannerisms like Adeline’s (Eleanor Tomlinson) smirks or Dr. Gachet’s (Jerome Flynn) contemplative pauses. However, these resonant affectations are lost in the animation; anyone familiar with the actors may also find it distracting to watch them perform behind a filter slightly more finessed than a-ha’s “Take on Me” music video. However, once the initial headache subsides and the brushstrokes appear to stop strobing, the approach requires less effort to absorb.
It’s easy to be a critic when a film approaches the kind of artistic elegance and ingenuity of “Loving Vincent.” It’s harder to keep in mind that this is the first time a movie attempted this daring visual technique and that there are bound to be missteps as innovators push the limits of what can be done.
In this case, by trying to distinguish Van Gogh, the filmmakers lose him. They come closest in a moment when Roulin and his father gaze up at the starry night and liken it to the artist as “something we get to gaze upon but never fully understand.” So, by all means, come to gaze upon the art of “Loving Vincent,” but don’t expect any answers about the man.