“This film you are about to see has been entirely hand painted by a team of over 100 artists.”

It’s true that Loving Vincent is the first-ever animated film to be painted instead of hand-drawn or computer-generate; given that grandiose announcement, I worried it wouldn’t amount to much more than an impressive technical achievement. Sure, the remarkable animation style is definitely what you’ll remember about the film. However, Loving Vincent is also an enthralling mystery, if not always a particularly well told one.

The question at the center of Loving Vincent (as in Vincent Van Gogh) is “How does a man go from being absolutely calm to committing suicide in just six weeks?” The film follows Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), one of Van Gogh’s most famous subjects, as he interviews other famous Van Gogh subjects to discover what triggered the artist’s suicide or whether it was even a suicide at all… There’s some business about mailing Van Gogh’s final letter to his sister-in-law, but it’s really just an excuse to start Armond on a journey that will send him to famous Van Gogh scenes, where he’ll meet more and more subjects from the artist’s iconic portraits.

For the most part, Loving Vincent avoids being 95-minutes of just outright “hero worship” and plays like a classic film noir mystery that delves into a surprisingly compelling discussion of mental illness. As Armond parses polar-opposite eye witness accounts of Van Gogh’s final weeks, the film paints a melting pot of psychiatric disorders exasperated by the artist’s battles with poverty and xenophobia from his neighbors. When Loving Vincent works best, the messy oil-painting style of the animation (loudly paying homage to Van Gogh’s work) effectively conveys how “messy” mental illness appears when you mistakenly attempt to boil down the root cause to a simple cause-and-effect narrative.

The mystery loses me a bit when Loving Vincent shoehorns in a grossly underdeveloped theory that Van Gogh was actually murdered by one of his bullies. Something about how the film pivots from a thoughtful look at the tragedy of misunderstood mental illness into a cheap sort of whodunit feels like Loving Vincent somewhat betrays itself. Its clumsy presentation is indicative of my biggest issue with the film: most of the story unfolds in endless flashbacks that are introduced without any segue. I sometimes grew tired of the jarring transitions, and the frustrating choice to have characters narrate precisely what we look at, as if we can’t, you know, see it.

Building an alternative theory with just a handful of poorly developed flashbacks, including a scene with a character who even seems too cartoonish for an animated film, makes it seem like an unnecessary addition tacked onto the film to create false intrigue. It’s unfortunate the film isn’t perfect because the animation style deserved to be married to a perfect film. I’ll re-watch Loving Vincent at some point just to stare at it. It’s easy to say the firs- ever painted film looks incredible, but that doesn’t really convey how hypnotic the constant flow of the images’ textures can be. If you just admire the animation, you may be able to look past some of the film’s weak storytelling and see a transcendent film experience.

Grade = B+

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