In 1853, after painting for only about 10 years, Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh killed himself. Or did he? Or if he did, why? This mystery sets up Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s biographical drama, which seeks to present the basics of van Gogh’s life while trying to understand what drove him. The story begins after van Gogh’s death as a postman’s son attempts to deliver a letter to the artist’s survivors; it’s a gambit that has him traveling between van Gogh’s art-world colleagues, family and the assorted residents of Auvers-sur-Oise, where van Gogh spent his last days. Individuals recount stories — many of which conflict — and there are flashbacks. (It is a narrative technique similar to, say, Citizen Kane.)
Any tale of the famous artist and his nearly-as-well-known personal struggles (he infamously cut off his ear) would be of interest, but what makes Loving Vincent remarkable is its production. It is “animated,” in that it was shot from 65,000 oil paintings, created by 100 artists, each working in van Gogh’s distinctive style. (In a sort of analog rotoscoping, actors, such as Jerome Flynn, Saoirse Ronan and Douglas Booth, provide both voices and a source for the paintings’ actions.) Thus, there is the sensation of seeing van Gogh’s world, as if through his painter’s eyes, as thick brush strokes and vivid colors bring people and places to life. There is the additional thrill of “recognizing” moments, taken from well-known paintings, such as those depicting van Gogh’s room, landscapes and portraits. Even when the story starts to wane or betrays its occasional clunky set-up, the experiential effect of being absorbed into a living painting should keep viewers intrigued.