Armand Roulin (voiced by Douglas Booth) in Loving Vincent (TIFF)

A year after artist Vincent van Gogh’s death in 1890, Armand Roulin (voiced by Douglas Booth) sets out on a journey to bring van Gogh’s final letter, addressed to his brother Theo, to its proper home. His goose chase leads him to van Gogh’s last residence, the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise, where Armand, the son of van Gogh’s last landlord, begins to investigate van Gogh’s death and attempts to piece together the Dutchman’s final days. Information, like that provided by an innkeeper’s daughter, triggers a flashback to the peripatetic painter’s remarkable career.

Trying to entertain himself while waiting to meet van Gogh’s physician, Dr. Gachet (Gerome Flynn), Armand begins to question the circumstances of the painter’s death and whether he really did kill himself. The answer is unclear, seeing that both historians and viewers don’t have a solid answer. However, as viewers, we desperately want to believe that van Gogh did not commit suicide and it was an accident.

An animated film with stunning visuals, this movie is a tribute to the artist. Hand painted, by more than a hundred artists, each frame is a painting and love letter to van Gogh’s style. Though based on true events, all of the characters are clearly based on his famous paintings he made in Auvers-sur-Oise, such as Portrait of Dr. Gachet, Portrait of Père Tanguy, At Eternity’s Gate, and several others. Of course, this makes sense because the movie is mostly set in the small town, van Gogh’s final resting place, and where he was constantly painting the world around him. The narrative takes inspiration from real-life events and people, creating characters out of subjects in van Gogh’s portraits. Reality and fiction blend, thus weaving a quasi-detective story.

The plot is basic and completely driven by the characters’ interests in van Gogh. It also helps if viewers are the groundbreaking artist’s fans. They’ll have more appreciation for the movie, which references painting after painting, and if the viewer is not familiar with the collection, one may be confused as to why so many shots are causing déjà vu. Also, it’s distracting at times how often the animation fluctuates, as layers upon layers of brush strokes noticeably alter the visuals. For viewers not completely engrossed in the story, the ever-shifting animation becomes distracting. The more subdued scenes set further in the past, in pencil and charcoal, are a lot more agreeable to the eyes.

Ultimately, Loving Vincent is designed mostly for Vincent van Gogh fans and lovers of unique animation. It has a lackluster story, but its striking artwork will definitely be seen as a hallmark for the animation industry for years to come.

Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman
Written by Jacek Dehnel, Kobiela, and Welchman
Poland/UK. 94 min. PG-13
With Douglas Booth, Josh Burdett, Holly Earl, Robin Hodges, Saorise Ronan, and Chris O’Dowd