In 1890, Vincent Van Gogh was truly living the high life. He had recognition, talent, fame, and pretty much everything else an aspiring artist around that time could ask for. Life was good. However, on July 29, he stumbled back to his hotel room with a bullet in his stomach, where he would die two days later. How did that happen? Did Van Gogh shoot himself in a moment of catharsis or was foul play at work? Loving Vincent, the world’s first oil-painted animated movie, tries to answer that question.
The film kicks off with the yellow-jacketed protagonist sitting in a cafe and discussing the nature of Van Gogh’s death with the local postman. When he finds himself with the enormous task of delivering the painter’s final letter to his brother, Theo, he takes it upon himself to find out the true nature of Vincent’s death by conducting a series of interviews with the locals and the ones who were closest to him (including Theo’s daughter). It gets really interesting from there.
While I won’t spoil all of the plot and all that happens, I will say that in the film’s (admittedly disappointing) ending, it does sort of state that Vincent killed himself (even saying in a postscript that one of the film’s teenagers claimed that Vincent stole his gun and killed himself), although it ultimately leaves the real cause of his death ambiguous. It doesn’t really matter how he died, the film seems to say, just as long as he lived a long and meaningful life. After all, he did say that all he wanted to do was touch people. For some people, that might be a satisfying ending, but for other people like me who like their endings more conclusive than not, it definitely won’t be satisfactory. In fact, if you wanted to see the film solely because you wanted to know how Vincent REALLY died, you may even walk out of the theater perplexed, confused, and maybe even a little angry at having spent your money at a film that offers no more answers than the average history book. So if you’re looking for good, solid evidence of how Van Gogh died, the film is obviously bunk, but elsewhere, the film is stunning. Take, for example, it’s animation. As I said before, the film is literally the world’s first oil painted animate film. “But how exactly did they do it?” you might ask. “Surely there must have been some way they animated it to make it look more realistic, was there?” The answer is yes, there was a way they did it. It’s called (drumroll) rotoscoping. Used in such diverse animated films such as Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly (both directed by the world renowned filmmaker, Richard Linklater), this animation technique involves shooting a film, scene by scene, in live-action, then drawing over the live-action print. Now while that may come as a slight disappointment to those who were expecting this film to be painted from scratch WITHOUT any of the rotoscoping to help them along, it certainly makes the animation feel more “real” and authentic than if the 5,000 animators who worked on the project had drawn it from scratch. And what animation it is. There are no words to comprehend the beauty of these hand-painted images (both in color (present-day) and black and white (flashbacks)), many of them perfectly mirroring (and almost trumping) Van Gogh’s actual paintings (hence the yellow-coated main character).
Still, as far as narrative goes, the film is almost like an animated JFK (both involve a person conducting a series of interviews with a lot of local people to try to piece together the mystery behind a shocking tragedy). But while JFK at least (seems to) makes clear what really happened at the very end through a blow-by-blow explanation (coupled with an extended B&W flashback), Loving Vincent offers not even a remote explanation of the true cause of Vincent’s death. This is by far the most frustrating (and flawed) aspects of the movie. Still, the gorgeous hand-painted animation alone makes it worth seeing, so if there has to be one reason to watch this movie, let it be that.