Not only does the film work as a visually spectacular achievement adorned by Van Gogh’s style, it’s also the first film to chronicle the 19 century artist’s rather mysterious life and death.
Written and directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, the plot plays like a pseudo mystery of sorts. A young French man named Armand (Douglass Booth) receives a letter from the brother of Vincent Van Gogh, who has recently died under cryptic circumstances. He’s tasked with sending the letter to the artist’s brother, but it turns out that the brother has also died mysteriously.
Armand then travels to a twee countryside in France to meet with Van Gogh’s doctor and various people connected to him to find out what could have happened. There is an undercurrent of a Rashomon like narrative where Armand receives contradictory accounts of the artist, as he pieces together the events leading up to the artist’s strange ear slicing incident and ultimately the unsolved mystery of his death.
Technically this is a whole new kind of filmmaking. It is made up entirely of actual paintings, executed by a team of 130 artists paying homage to Van Gogh’s visual style. One could think of this film as a bridge between Disney’s early hand drawn films and modern digital motion capture features such as Renaissance and A Scanner Darkly. The closest comparison is Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir which was also a mystery executed in rotoscoped painterly style.
The result is a jaw dropping sensory experience, each frame glimmering with the colors and contours of Van Gogh’s work, featuring all his famous paintings such as Starry Night and even lesser known ones. Every time the film cuts to a black and white flashback, and back to the colorful world of Van Gogh it’s hard not to gasp in awe. The swirling, vigorous visuals are accentuated by Clint Mansell’s music that swells up to emotional highs that we haven’t experienced in other animation films this year.
One wishes the narrative were are effective as the visuals. The dialogue is rather cheesy and Booth’s English accent in a French setting never feels convincing. The plotting never rises from perfunctory mystery of what happened to Van Gogh and why he behaved the way he did. There’s little depth into the investigation, and the ‘filmy’ nature of the execution sometimes makes the film reminiscent of the disappointing Edgar Allen Poe thriller The Raven.
Ultimately we never learn much about Van Gogh and his genius, but this is a kind of a story that would probably work better as a ten part mini series. Even then, this is a film that should be seen on the big screen just for the experience, and it’s also a peek into the possibilities of what could be done with this kind of filmmaking.