Movies may be singular visions (which mostly emerge from the foundry of teamwork), while painters typically only wrestle with themselves and with however many ideas are inside them at any given time. As labor-intensive missions go, then, “Loving Vincent” — a fictionalized inquest into the Dutch-born, France-adopted genius Vincent van Gogh as his final days are remembered by those close to him — is an appreciation of one man’s celebrated art by way of a startling approach: animating a movie out of 65,000 oil paintings, all done by hand, by 125 professional oil-painters.
It’s an idea that sounds as nutty as cutting your ear off to quell an emotional fit, except that the result is, frankly, not nutty enough. Where sensitive, troubled Vincent Van Gogh’s life gave us hundreds of eye-popping works that have earned him the label of Father of Modern Art, the painstaking effort filmmakers Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman went into to breathe new biopic life into their subject is regrettably a case of admirable dedication overwhelming real artistry.
So unusual a project bears some explanation as to what Kobiela and Welchman were after. Van Gogh’s paintings and brush/color style were the inspiration, so a story was developed that could weave people and locations the artist painted into a kind of moving gallery show. Actors were filmed — either in front of green screen, or on sets made to look like painting locations — then rotoscoped over by the design team of oil painters on a frame-by-frame basis.
What transpires is a style-referential animation in which, for example, a scene set in a bar is really a pulsating rendering of van Gogh’s “The Night Café,” augmented to add the character of Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth, “Jupiter Ascending”), the young, disillusioned protagonist who heads Kobiela’s and Welchman’s scenario.
It’s a year after van Gogh’s suicide, and Armand, the son of a postman (Chris O’Dowd) who had befriended van Gogh, is tasked with delivering an unsent letter of Vincent’s to his brother Theo. By the time Armand’s journey leads to a sit-down with one of the artist’s last confidantes, Dr. Paul Gachet (Jerome Flynn, “Game of Thrones”), those familiar with the master’s work will surely know to expect a shot that recreates, recontextualizes and animates “Portrait of Dr. Gachet.”
Unfortunately, Spot the Painting is this wooden movie’s only sustaining thrill, because the investigation plot rarely generates any lasting interest. Armand is a bitter young man discomfited by his dad’s kindness toward what he was assumed was a failed foreigner with mental problems. As he seeks out friends and acquaintances — starting with van Gogh’s art supplier Pere Tanguy (John Sessions) in Paris, and ending with Dr. Gachet in the artist’s last residence, sleepy Auvers-sur-Oise — Armand’s feelings about the letter writer soften, and his assessment changes into one of getting at the truth behind a tragedy: Why would an on-the-rise painter shoot himself?
The movie takes on the structure of a low-boil Agatha Christie mystery, with a succession of interviews conducted by Armand (all with people inspired by figures in van Gogh paintings): a boatman (Aidan Turner), a farmer, an inn-keeper’s daughter (Eleanor Tomlinson), Dr. Gachet’s caustic housekeeper (Helen McCrory), and the doctor’s daughter Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan), with whom van Gogh was seen taking boat rides.
Many of the conversations rehash the same observations about the deceased painter: he was kind, always working, always worried about money and the future, adoring of his supportive brother, and clearly brilliant. As more information emerges, about taunting village kids and how van Gogh could have secured a gun, Armand is left with more questions than answers, until Dr. Gachet reveals a few undisclosed details to Armand that put van Gogh’s death in a sadder, truer light.
At the heart of why “Loving Vincent” stops short of satisfying is in the strange middle ground between still painting and moving image. At times, the technique of animating van Gogh paintings has a dreamlike quality, and putting the flashbacks in black-and-white is a smart choice, creating a fascinating hybrid of monochrome impasto and the silky vibe of pre-Technicolor cinema. But whenever it’s a (usually not exciting) dialogue between characters, Armand and whomever, the sense of a directed camera perfunctorily shooting actors in a studio takes over, and the eccentric magic of the method dissipates.
There’s no denying that “Loving Vincent,” as a curated and curious homage to the beloved Dutchman’s work and the fragility of his soul, is a one-of-a-kind accomplishment. But only in its thoroughness. The transcendence, what made van Gogh’s starry-ness so thick and emotional, is missing.