In their 2011 biography of the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, titled simply “Van Gogh: The Life,” co-authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith proposed an intriguing theory concerning the artist’s 1890 death.
Long thought to have committed suicide, van Gogh – Naifeh and Smith claimed – was actually shot by someone else. And even though the artist, on his deathbed, said that he indeed did attempt suicide, Naifeh and Smith – pointing to the position of the wound and other circumstantial evidence – insisted that he must have been covering up for someone.
Other van Gogh scholars have ridiculed the story, maintaining that van Gogh’s history of mental illness was in itself enough of an explanation for the suicide verdict, much less van Gogh’s own confession. Whatever the truth of the matter, the theory aroused the interest of Polish filmmaker Dorota Kobiela. And in an effort to explore the story, Kobiela had an idea intriguing in its own right: She would immerse viewers in van Gogh’s very art.
Teaming with British filmmaker Hugh Welchman, Kobiela hired a team of skilled artists to re-create 94 of van Gogh’s works. From those re-creations, which numbered by one estimate to some 66,960 individual oil renderings, the co-directors cast actors who resembled van Gogh’s subjects, filmed them in live-action sequences and, with the aid of computer graphics, translated the story into film.
That story commences a year following van Gogh’s death, at the age of 37 in a small village some 17 miles northwest of Paris. Armand Roulin (voiced by Douglas Booth) is a young man who spends much of his time drinking and fighting. He is asked by his father to carry a letter, written by the late van Gogh, to the artist’s brother Theo. The letter is two years old – yet the elder Roulin, a postman who admired van Gogh, feels obligated that it be delivered.
Thus starts Armand’s sojourn, a trek that takes him to the village – Auvers-sur-Oise – where he meets a range of characters who knew van Gogh, each of whom has a different story to tell. Sometimes openly, sometimes reluctantly.
Those characters are voiced by a cast of talented actors, from a suspicious servant (played by Helen McRory) to van Gogh’s doctor (Jerome Flynn), a sympathetic waitress (Eleanor Tomlinson) to the doctor’s alluring daughter (Saoirse Ronan).
In effect, “Loving Vincent” is more about Armand than it is about van Gogh, who is seen only in flashback – in sequences that contrast sharply with the rest of the film’s vibrant colors. Armand initially wonders why anyone could be interested in an obviously deranged man. But by the film’s end, he wonders why no one seems to care about the mysterious way – in his mind, at least – that van Gogh died.
Yet the artist is present in every frame, his unique style represented throughout in the way that Kobiela and Welchman add movement to otherwise familiar individual works.
It is those works, flowing with life, that set “Loving Vincent” apart from your standard life study. And they are what underscores that film title’s very meaning.