Tampering with an artist’s memory can be dangerous business: In 2011, Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh published Van Gogh: The Life, an acclaimed biography arguing, among other things, that the Dutch painter’s gunshot death in July 1890, in the French town of Auvers-sur-Oise, was no suicide, as scholars had agreed for years, but homicide at the hands of a local bully. The blowback from Van Gogh fans and art historians was severe. “Many [of these scholars] had done years of research and writing that was deeply embedded in the old narrative,” the authors explained in a Vanity Fair article three years after the book appeared. “They didn’t just disagree with our new reading; they were enraged by it. . . . [One] specialist, with whom we shared a stage at the opening of a Van Gogh exhibition in Denver, was so choked with indignation that he refused even to discuss the subject when the audience raised it.”
Everyone knows that Van Gogh killed himself in despair, because—well, why? Because it was in that Irving Stone novel, Lust for Life, and the Hollywood movie that Vincente Minnelli made out of it? Loving Vincent, the first Van Gogh biopic since the homicide theory surfaced, dives into the mystery surrounding the painter’s death. This extraordinary animation, created by a team of 115 artists who hand-painted every one of its 65,000 frames, brings to life many of the people Van Gogh painted during his last years in France—foremost among them young Armand Roulin, whose family befriended Van Gogh during his year-long stay in Arles. One year after the artist’s death, Armand is recruited by his father, Joseph, to track down Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, and place in his hands an unsent letter from Vincent that has just turned up. Armand’s journey leads him to Paris, where he learns that Theo has died too, and then to nearby Auvers, where he questions the townspeople about Vincent and, from their variously colored memories, tries to reconstruct how and why the artist died.
Visually the film is stunning, a flawlessly executed journey through Van Gogh’s art. The production team, divided between Poland and the UK, spent a year adapting to their cinematic frame (in the standard aspect ratio of 1.33:1) some 125 different Van Gogh paintings, either as backgrounds or as character studies. Actors, shot on digital video, performed in costume against green screens or on sets that replicated Van Gogh paintings. From that point each shot became the work of a single artist, who would use the digital image as a guide and paint the first frame on a 67-by-49-centimeter canvas; after this was photographed, the artist would alter the canvas to create the second frame, which would then be photographed, and so on, until the shot was completed. Onscreen the French landscapes that so inspired Van Gogh come alive, his paint strokes sizzling and spiraling with energy; the interiors gleam with the bright, clashing colors that he always managed to bring into harmony.
The movie’s flashbacks, however, are rendered in black and white, recalling the more sober and impressionistic work Van Gogh drew back in the Netherlands. Writer-directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman touch briefly on Vincent’s arid childhood, but most of these black-and-white sequences concern his days in France. Hoping to escape the stifling Parisian art scene, Van Gogh moved to Arles in 1888 and enjoyed an explosively productive period that also coincided with his worsening mental illness. A tumultuous visit from fellow painter Paul Gauguin that fall so disturbed Van Gogh that he cut off part of his left ear and gave it to a local prostitute, after which the townspeople circulated a petition demanding his expulsion. A year of hospitalizations and further breakdowns followed, but in May 1890, Van Gogh moved to Auvers to paint under the supervision of a physician and amateur artist named Dr. Gachet, who wound up attending him at his deathbed.
Armand (given voice and form by British actor Douglas Booth) brings his own unpleasant memories of Van Gogh to the story. In the opening sequence Armand drinks and broods in the diabolical red-green room we know from Van Gogh’s The Night Café on the Place Lamartine in Arles (1888). There’s bad blood between Armand and the other townspeople, who shunned his father, the kindly local postman, for refusing to sign their petition. Joseph Roulin (played with great tenderness by Chris O’Dowd of Bridesmaids) came to Van Gogh’s aid immediately after he severed his ear, and the postman still seethes at how his neighbors turned on the sick stranger in their midst. Rousting his drunken son from the Night Café, he recalls the calm and lucid letter he received from Van Gogh only six weeks before the painter died. Roulin can’t understand it: “How does a man go from being absolutely calm to suicidal in six weeks?”
When Armand arrives in Auvers, he discovers another small town governed by gossip and petty cruelty, where people’s memories of Van Gogh are tinted by their own agendas. Louise Chevalier (Helen McCrory), the doctor’s pious, hard-hearted housekeeper, remembers Van Gogh as “evil” and tells Armand, “We’ve had quite enough weeping over that nutcase in this household.” Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tomlinson), daughter of a local innkeeper, remembers the night Van Gogh was brought home with a bullet wound and characterizes Dr. Gachet as criminally negligent; she sends Armand to meet with a local boatman, who reports having seen Van Gogh on a secret date with Gachet’s beautiful daughter, Marguerite. At the doctor’s house, Armand finds Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan of Brooklyn in a proud, high-necked performance) posed at an upright piano in her flowing white dress, just as she is in Van Gogh’s Marguerite Gachet at the Piano (1890). She remembers Van Gogh as a platonic friend and a tortured soul, bristling at the implication that her father was to fault for the artist’s death.
Kobiela and Welchman give the homicide theory a proper airing when Armand encounters Doctor Mazery (Bill Thomas), an elderly man who first appears seated with his head in his hands, after the image of Van Gogh’s At Eternity’s Gate (1890). Like a crime scene technician, Mazery reenacts the shooting, standing Armand in place as Van Gogh and demonstrating how the trajectory of the bullet proves the gun was fired from a distance. As in Van Gogh: A Life, the principal suspect for the crime is one René Secrétan, a rich teenager from Paris who fancied himself a cowboy and carried around a small pistol; during that summer he continually patronized Van Gogh, including him in social gatherings but then mocking him after he’d departed. For years after the painter’s death, rumors circulated around Auvers that Van Gogh had been shot by a group of teenagers, possibly by accident, on a road near the Secrétans’ summer home.
Loving Vincent takes an appropriately agnostic position on the Secrétan angle, following Mazery’s argument with a climactic scene in which Armand finally comes face-to-face with Dr. Gachet. Played with elegance and gravity by Jerome Flynn of Game of Thrones, Gachet sweeps away Armand’s suspicions, pointing out that melancholia (i.e., clinical depression) can drive a calm man to suicide in six hours, let alone six weeks, and remembering Van Gogh as a man who fought an “unfathomable, empty loneliness,” who was “deeply afraid of the future.” The doctor offers a simpler explanation for the artist’s death, though one shaded by his own guilt: shortly before the shooting incident, he and Van Gogh had fought bitterly, and the doctor had blamed Vincent for the emotional stress that was slowly killing his brother, Theo. When Van Gogh was dying, Gachet reports, his only words were “Maybe it is better for everyone.”
Turning Van Gogh’s death into a sort of memory play is a masterstroke, given the painter’s own growing appreciation of memory as an artistic resource. Throughout his career Van Gogh had drawn strength and inspiration from observed nature, but during the two months he spent working alongside Gauguin, who urged him to abandon the physical world for pure imagination, he painted from memory the garden of his father’s home in 1875, with a servant tending the flowers and two women passing through. Writing to his sister, he likened one of the women in Memory of the Garden at Etten (1888) to their mother and explained, “The deliberate choice of colour, the dark violet violently blotched with the lemon yellow of the dahlias, suggests Mother’s personality to me.” The “bizarre lines” of the garden “may present it to our minds as seen in a dream, depicting its character, and at the same time stranger than it is in reality.”
Memory, Van Gogh learned, is more susceptible to emotion, and thus to exaggerations of color and form. Loving Vincent actually inverts this idea with its floridly colorful present-tense narrative and its drab, black-and-white flashbacks. But as Armand learns at the end of the movie, there’s no way to assemble all the conflicting recollections of Van Gogh into a portait more truthful than the stern self-portraits he left behind. And as Smith and Naifeh confirmed with their controversial book, who an artist really was doesn’t matter nearly as much as how people want to remember him. v