Armand (Douglas Booth), the son of Vincent Van Gogh’s postman (Chris O’Dowd) is asked to deliver one final, posthumous letter to Vincent’s beloved brother Theo. After hearing Theo has also died Armand seeks out Vincent’s doctor Paul Gachet (Jerome Flynn) and seeks to understand what happened in his final weeks.
Like Leonard Nimoy’s Vincent this takes a retrospective look at Van Gogh’s life through the eyes of those who knew him. But where that was a one-man play, telling the story of his life through the most limited means, Loving Vincent opts for the technically dazzling approach of animating the entire film in the style of Van Gogh’s paintings.
Through rotoscoping (where footage is filmed then drawn over the top of – or, in this case, oil painted) it creates a visual style which is both real, featuring several recognisable actors, and fantastical, with Van Gogh’s flowing brushwork perfectly embodied. This has the effect of fusing the art to the artist, and allows us to see the world through his eyes, in spite of the fact his appearances (in flashback) are minimal. This gives us a sense of his world but with a giant hole in the middle created by his demise.
There were over 65,000 frames painted for the film, by 125 painters, which incorporate Van Gogh’s actual works. Described by director Hugh Welchman as the slowest form of film making ever devised (it took four years to complete), it clearly couldn’t have been achieved without genuine love for its subject.
Like Vincent it captures his achingly sad life, where his masterful paintings went unsold and he lived in poverty, consigned to an asylum or forced to live off his brother. But we also hear from people who enjoyed his company, giving us a sense of his lighter side. It therefore paints an authentic and believable portrait of the tragic artist, keeping his work in the foreground, while, like its subject, managing to express itself in a completely unique and original way.
It’s so good I can’t help but wish they’d do it with other artists. Dali’s life in the style of Dali would be crazy, if hard to follow. Turner’s life in the style of Turner would be more exciting than the biopic they made, and the visuals could get more abstract through the film, reflecting his transformation as an artist. Or you could do Emin’s life in the style of Emin. But I don’t know how you could convince an unmade bed to make a drunken fool of itself on national TV.