Vincent Van Gogh, I was taught in art history classes, signed his paintings as if they were letters to friends. To me, that perhaps more than anything makes a Van Gogh work so naked, so vulnerable, so trusting: a tug on the coat sleeve plea for us to just look, just try to see what the artist sees. And to like it and, by extension, to like him.
Loving Vincent, a jaw-droppingly awesome piece of art, essentially takes up this theme, exploring the artist and his lonely life. It does so through the visual equivalent of telling Van Gogh’s story in his own words: it tells his life literally in his own paintings.
The film unfolds as a mystery story, as the protagonist — Armand Roulin, son of the postman Joseph Roulin, familiar to us from his painting — grudgingly attempts to deliver Van Gogh’s last letter to his brother. As he meets the characters in Van Gogh’s life (except for the most important, Theo, who died six months after Vincent — of tertiary syphilis, something I did not know) and the sketchy details surrounding his life and death are filled in and elaborated on, Armand comes to admire and champion the artist.
That’s basically the whole story: there are some surprising details, drawing on a theory expounded in a 2011 biography of Van Gogh that he was not a suicide but was instead accidentally shot by a pistol-waving, Buffalo Bill–emulating teenager. And like a good whodunit, our suspicions regarding friend or foe are alternately aroused and doused as conflicting perspectives are presented by the people who interacted with Van Gogh during his last months.
But the movie isn’t really about plot or narrative or motivation. It’s about the way you feel when you look at a Van Gogh. That sensation is prolonged and magnified as the screen shimmers and quivers with the places and people we know so well from the paintings. Billed as the first-ever feature-length hand-painted animation, it is comprised of 62,450 oil paintings. The work and skill and imagination that have gone into this film are breathtaking. The magical sense of living in scenes we know, seeing a starry night become the starry night, thrilling to a casually held iris. And there is an extended sequence with a basin of water that I cannot begin to describe, but which made me have to remind myself that I was watching animation.
What is most wondrous about Loving Vincent is that it packs a genuine emotional wallop. Ironically, this filmic painting about paintings delivers up living, breathing characters. Van Gogh has done the preliminary work in this regard: we know the postman, and Père Tanguy, and Dr. Gachet, and all the rest. We really know them: as Marie says in Sunday in the Park with George, “Isn’t it lovely how artists can capture us?” So there is an element of reconnecting with old friends, a nostalgia, a kinship.
But the deeper emotion lies in realizing the desperate loneliness of the man even as we glory in the transcendence of his art.