It’s a novel idea and maybe even a good one: Tell the story of Vincent Van Gogh in the visual style of his paintings. And there’s no denying that “Loving Vincent” is a jawdropper on the level of craft and technique: 125 artists diligently handpainted each frame based on film material created using a combination of live actors and digital animation. The results are visually dazzling. The movie as a whole is something less.
The passion project of Polish-born director Dorota Kobiela, who worked in partnership with British filmmaker Hugh Welchman, “Loving Vincent” takes place in the aftermath of the artist’s death in July 1890. Armand (Douglas Booth), a wastrel dandy and son of Arles postman Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd) — himself one of Van Gogh’s most celebrated subjects — is charged with bringing a newly found letter from Vincent to his brother Theo. So begins an odyssey that takes the young man to Paris and then to the village of Auvers, where he is sobered up by the discovery that Vincent’s death may not have been a suicide.
Yes, “Loving Vincent” dramatizes a controversial conspiracy theory before ultimately walking it much of the way back. The script follows the “Citizen Kane” format, with the main character interviewing one person after another about Van Gogh’s final days and each reminiscence going into a flashback rendered in the style of black-and-white charcoal drawings (and featuring Robert Gulaczyk as Vincent).
These narrators are people who in real life either sat for the artist or were inspired by his anonymous subjects. A rough-edged boatman (Aidan Turner) tells Armand about Vincent’s friendship with a group of decadent young party boys. A Dr. Mazery (Bill Thomas) provides forensic evidence pointing to homicide. Marguerite Gachet (Saoirse Ronan), the girl playing piano in the famous painting, may have been his lover or may have been his friend.
The suspicions all seem to point to Dr. Gachet (Jerome Flynn, Bronn on “Game of Thrones”), a friend and amateur artist whom “Loving Vincent” keeps offstage for much of the running time before introducing him leaning against his propped-up hand, as in the well-known artwork. The movie plays similar games throughout, invoking specific paintings through angles, subjects, lighting, and, above all, brush strokes. The handpainted images, glowing with the blues and yellows and ochres and vermilions of Van Gogh’s palette, are built up with thick impastos of pigment that seem to continuously evolve, as if the artworks themselves had come to life.
The effect is magical at first, especially when you consider the immense amount of planning and effort that have gone into the making of “Loving Vincent.” By midpoint, though, the visuals have started to overwhelm a wandering screenplay and banal dialogue, and by the final scenes you may feel like you’re overdosing on a cake that’s all frosting.
Ultimately, the filmmakers have little idea what to do with the idea of artistic genius — and with this genius in particular — other than to literalize and sentimentalize them both. A soggy end-credit performance of Don MacLean’s “Starry, Starry Night,” sung by the fine British R&B artist Lianne La Havas, only confirms the sense that “Loving Vincent” has turned into a meticulous and mesmerizing work of kitsch.
Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman. Written by Kobiela, Welchman, and Jacek Dehnel. Featuring the voices of Douglas Booth, Saoirse Ronan, Chris O’Dowd. At Kendall Square. 95 minutes. PG-13 (mature thematic elements, some violence, sexual material, and smoking).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.