Loving Vincent was bound to be a box office darling long before it even hit theaters, with a trailer release in 2016 that immediately went viral. That same year, TimeOut New York decided — albeit not quite scientifically — that van Gogh was the third most famous artist of all time, behind Andy Warhol and Picasso. (As we learned recently, even Trump likes van Gogh.) Then there was the van Gogh Airbnb in Chicago, the van Gogh lookalike contest, the new theories on the artist’s mental health, the list goes on and on. And now Loving Vincent has been nominated for an Oscar.
The plot of the “world’s first feature-length painted animation” is reminiscent of a murder mystery. A few weeks after van Gogh’s death, his friend Joseph Roulin, a postman in Arles, finds a letter from the late artist to his brother, Theo. Roulin tasks his son, Armand, with delivering the letter, but Armand soon discovers that Theo has also died. What follows is a journey to visit the many friends and acquaintances van Gogh painted, with Armand trying to find out what exactly happened in the weeks before van Gogh’s death and whether it could possibly have been a homicide.
But the plot line really isn’t that important. (I found myself not even paying attention to story about midway through.) In fact, had the film completely lacked a plot, it would have been just as compelling, if not even more so. As has been well-publicized, the film was an arduous endeavor, with 125 artists painting it frame by frame, all in van Gogh’s signature style. The result is a kind of hallucinatory swirl of night sky, cypress trees, and wallpapers in the background, with a foreground of characters van Gogh once painted, everyone from Doctor Paul Gachet to paint supplier Père Tanguy, all of them painstakingly recreated as the artist once perceived them.
The actors playing the roles filmed the whole movie first, which the artists used as reference footage for creating their layers of animated paintings. The filmed footage was then combined with the paintings, so viewers can still recognize the faces of Saoirse Ronan, Chris O’Dowd, and the rest of the actors in the animated paintings. In all, the film recreated moving versions of 94 different van Gogh paintings, with an additional 31 paintings at least partially rendered. The whole process took a couple years under the supervision of writer/directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman.
What’s most captivating about Loving Vincent is the care with which it was made. Having a special appreciation for claymation and hand-drawn animation, and being the kind of person who tends to look on new technologies with a skeptical eye — when movie theaters started using digital projectors in the early 2000s, I specifically avoided them in favor of film projector screenings — I find it refreshing that an animated movie painted by hand could be so well-received. And even though the storyline falters, I’d still watch it again. Maybe on mute with a solo piano soundtrack.
Loving Vincent is playing at Quad Cinema (34 West 13th Street, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) through February 1. It’s also available on many streaming sites, including Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.