A certain biographical shorthand has congealed around Vincent Van Gogh: his genius, madness, self-mutilation and suicide. Delving into what some consider mysterious circumstances surrounding his death, directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman have created a detective story with “Loving Vincent.” Their speculative narrative attempts to penetrate the myth of Van Gogh, but it’s their inspired visual approach that brings him to life.
The rotoscoping of live-action performances will be familiar to anyone who has seen “Waking Life” or “A Scanner Darkly,” but “Loving Vincent” takes that process many painstaking steps beyond the usual. The first animated feature made entirely of painted images, the Polish-British production enlisted dozens of artists, and each of its 65,000 shimmering frames is a high-resolution photograph of an oil painting.
Every image is based on Van Gogh’s work, with the actors — who include Saoirse Ronan and Helen McCrory — portraying people who sat for him. One of them, Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), is the story’s agnostic investigator, dispatched from Arles by his postmaster father (Chris O’Dowd) to deliver the last letter Van Gogh wrote.
The life-changing journey unfolds, in somewhat stilted fashion, as a series of conversations between Armand and people who knew Van Gogh during his final weeks. Their conflicting accounts are often overly psychological attempts to explain him.
Beyond explanation is the art itself. Animating Van Gogh’s bold impasto, already kinetic on the canvas, could have been merely superfluous. As moving pictures, though, the brushstrokes have an unexpected pull in this uneven but deeply felt homage.
Rating: PG-13, for mature thematic elements, some violence, sexual material and smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Hollywood; Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles