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The best thing by far about Loving Vincent is its medium: Each frame was hand-painted with oil colors so vivid it’s difficult to look away. The worst thing by far about Loving Vincent, at least emotionally, is that it does little to dispel the tortured artist mythos, though really that theory is wound around Vincent van Gogh himself.
The plot is also a concern. Written by Jacek Dehnel along with directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, the film imagines a young man, Armand (Douglas Booth), who’s tasked by his postmaster father (Chris O’Dowd) to deliver a posthumous letter from van Gogh (Robert Gulaczyk) to his younger brother, Theo (Cezary Lukaszewicz), a year after van Gogh’s death. Armand thinks this is a waste of time because van Gogh was a waste of a man. But he travels to the French town in which the artist spent his last days anyway, and after talking to a couple of people, experiences a 180-degree change in attitude. Suddenly, Armand must know the details and put the letter in the right hands.
From then on, the filmmakers play fast and loose with what is known about van Gogh and his death. They posit relationships, moods, intentions, and even if the possibility that another person actually shot the painter. Some interviewed by Armand drew a rosy portrait. Per his paint supplier (John Sessions): “With Theo’s support, there was no stopping him… And I finally thought, this is a story that will end well.” (Theo supported Vincent financially and encouraged him to pursue art in his late 20s.) Then there was his doctor’s housekeeper: “He was evil,” recalls Louise (Helen McCrory). “That nutcase.” Whether the doctor’s daughter (Saoirse Ronan) had a relationship with him was another mystery, even though Armand spoke to the woman several times.
One unusual choice the filmmakers made is drawing the characters to resemble the actors. Because much of the cast isn’t well-known, it usually isn’t a distraction. O’Dowd was easy enough to hide underneath a postmaster’s cap and a giant beard. But with Ronan you can’t help thinking: Did they have to make her face so puffy?
Using 100 painters to paint each frame, however, was not a misstep. Van Gogh’s most famous works are animated, and it’s fun to recognize paintings such as “Cafe Terrace at Night” and watch characters move through them. Flashbacks, some photorealistic, are in black and white. All are beautiful.
But the beauty comes at the price of van Gogh’s melancholia. You see him sobbing in bed, writing to Theo that “days seem like weeks” to him, and telling his doctor after he shot himself (or, in this fantasized scene, after he was shot) that “maybe it was better for everyone.” You ache for the artist, yet wonder if anyone would have been able to talk him off the ledge. Considering he sold only one of his more than 800 paintings while he was alive, that likely would have been a tough sell. Too many thought like Armand had before his journey, rather than after, at which point he improbably says, “What I’m wondering is if people will appreciate what he did.” Loving Vincent opens Friday at the Avalon Theatre.