Our journey starts in Arles, 1891. But the story, the real story, has roots much deeper than that.
By the time “Loving Vincent” picks up in Arles, Vincent Van Gogh has already killed himself. Armand Roulin, son of the Postmaster General, has been charged with delivering the final letter he wrote to his brother. After finding out the other Van Gogh also killed himself, Armand wants to find the proper person to keep the letter, and gets sucked into the rabbit hole of tracing Vincent’s final days.
It’s a sort of whodunit, but looking for the smoking gun rather than the culprit; why would Vincent Van Gogh kill himself? Armand finds himself increasingly engrossed and while everyone’s got their own side of the story — the woman who worked the house he stayed in, his doctor, the daughter of his doctor — no one’s truth exactly aligns.
And so we are led through the final weeks of Vincent’s life, flashback by flashback. The device gives the movie the feeling of a series of video game cut scenes, flitting between the past in black-and-white and the “interrogations” of the present.
Though we almost never hear from him directly, the story is animated, literally, with the spirit of Vincent. “Loving Vincent” was filmed and painted over by over 100 artists in the post-Impressionist style native to Vincent’s period (and using the same technique he did). The resulting scene feels more picturesque; the framing of the shot feels more intentional, the folks in the back of the bar that much more vital to the scene.
Characters — often real people from Vincent’s life — are made up in the style of both their inspirations and of art. “Café Terrace at Night,” “Wheatfield with Crows,” “The Night Café” — it all comes alive in “Loving Vincent.” And his characters, like Pere Tanguy, are there too.
Mileage of the animation style may vary. The movie switches from paint to a softer, charcoal style in the flashbacks, and the constant jumping back and forth for moments at a time grows pretty tiresome, even with the clever way they wind the great artist’s inspirations into the story.
It certainly doesn’t help that the film never manages to tap into the emotion of Vincent’s work. Though they turn the eye of his style towards scenes not oft represented in Impressionist art, “Loving Vincent” can’t seem to illuminate these scenes with a full believability. The dialogue feels like play acting, and the movie gets caught in the realistic surrealism of the art style.
By the time the movie has wound its way to the conclusion, it all feels far too convenient; neat and tidy in a way that tragedies like this never are. “Loving Vincent” seems to be bold enough to write in a meaning, a direct cause, to Van Gogh’s suicide, but is never brave enough to acknowledge that mental health is a tricky beast. While there are hints at a deeper understanding of the emotional complexity behind someone like Vincent Van Gogh and suicide, it’s ultimately perfunctory at best.
By the time the credits are rolling and the seemingly custom song sings on about his greatness, it feels less like a portrait of a genius gone too soon, and more like a pale imitation.
“Loving Vincent,” opens Oct. 13 at SIFF Cinema Uptown (511 Queen Anne Ave. N.).