This British-Polish, animated film explores the fate of Vincent van Gogh, renowned Post-Impressionist, 19th Century Dutch painter, and the possible circumstances of his tragic death.
The story behind the movie is based on suspicions aired publicly in the 2011 biography of the artist written by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White, suggesting that van Gogh at age 37 was shot in 1890 by another person, and did not suicide.
One year after van Gogh’s death, Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), son of the chief postman at Arles, arrives in Auvers-sur-Oise, with one of van Gogh’s last letters to his brother, Theo, to whom van Gogh wrote to, almost every day. Armand is told that Theo has recently died, and it is recommended that he get in touch with Doctor Gachet (Jerome Flynn), who treated van Gogh. While waiting for Doctor Gachet to return home, Armand mingles with the villagers in the town, many of whom modelled for van Gogh, or inspired his paintings in other ways. In talking and interacting with them, he becomes suspicious about how the artist died. The puzzle is unresolved, and finally Armand asks Dr. Gachet to deliver van Gogh’s letter, signed “Your loving Vincent”, to Theo’s widow. He hears later that she received it gratefully.
The credits at the end of the film, reveal just how well the pictures painted in the film reflect actual people. Among the many actors for the film, Robert Gulaczyk plays Vincent van Gogh, and Saoirse Ronan plays Dr. Gachet’s daughter, Marguerite, who recognised well ahead of time just how talented van Gogh was.
The plot line of the movie is basically a detective story, but the film captures the complexity of van Gogh’s tortured personality in many ways. The thriller format of the story is secondary to assessment of the movie’s real impact. This is a fully painted feature film, and the first cinema feature film to ever use its special technique of animation. For the entire movie, we see the world through van Gogh’s eyes. The movie’s overarching message is that one must understand a truly great artist through their work, and not through recollected facts or stories, true or false, about their lives.
The animation technique of this movie is unique. Every one of the 62,450 frames of the film is a hand painted oil painting done by one or more of 125 professional painters who travelled from different parts of the world to take part in the film’s production. Except when the images move into black-and-white to reflect differing emotions, each of the paintings mimics the style and appearance of a van Gogh painting. The movie took more than six years to complete, and is a unique tribute. The thick, tactile-looking paint in every frame reminds one instantly of the work of van Gogh. Polish animator, Dorota Kobiela, and British animator, Hugh Welchman, co-directed the movie, and have done a remarkable job of focusing on the van Gogh-like beauty of textured brush-strokes in his art. For the film, movement was created by repainting frames.
In the film, there are cinematic clashes between reality and imagination, as the demands of the story-line struggle for artistic expression. This is a movie, however, in which plot concerns about different characters and their tensions stand well apart from the nature of the artist’s work.
The visual impact of the movie is extraordinary. The design of every coloured scene is just as van Gogh might have painted it, and every coloured frame is a pastiche of a van Gogh canvas. The effect is breathtaking. Visually the film is spectacular, and its technique of animation is wondrous.
This is a film that is a must-see for those who appreciate the artistic genius of van Gogh, but also for anyone interested in animation techniques in modern cinema. The film is good enough to blur the dividing line between creative film-technique and creative art.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the International Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting