Van Gogh is remembered as much for his tortured past as for his artistic masterpieces, so much so that the romantic ideal of the “tortured artist” finds its roots in his troubled life. Historically, tortured artists have been characterized by their strong sense of alienation; they are self-destructive and struggle with mental health issues, often ridiculed for “thinking too much.” 

The tortured artist ideal is not a trope relegated to the past. In fact, it finds its prominence now more than ever in the legacies of artistic icons like Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse. As time passes, artists who were once human beings are now regarded as idealized enigmas, and the beauty of their art seems to magnify as we come to dwell on what could have been but was not. Within this nostalgia lies the implicit, yet shallow question: Would these artists have been so prolific or visionary if it wasn’t for their mental illness?

Why do these masters find such prominence only after their deaths? Why did Winehouse’s “Back to Black” become the U.K.’s best-selling album of the 21st century more than five years after her death? Why do we romanticize Cobain’s suicide note, or Van Gogh’s ripped ear? Perhaps our appreciation of their lives and their art is a too-late apology for our ignorance and neglect of what they found beautiful and important during their too-short lives. Nevertheless, such apologies — though well intentioned — are misdirected. They tend to focus too much on the artist, their death and the art than on the emotions and soul that fueled that virtuosity.

“Loving Vincent,” directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, seeks to provide the most whole tribute to Van Gogh’s emotional essence. It is the world’s first oil-painted feature film, with a team of 125 artists painting each of the film’s 65,000 frames by hand. The film follows the story of Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), the son of Van Gogh’s postman, who is tasked with delivering Van Gogh’s last letter to Theo, the artist’s brother. After failing to find Theo and convey the letter, Armand endeavors to uncover the truth behind Van Gogh’s death, seeking out individuals like Van Gogh’s lover Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan), his psychologist Dr. Gachet (Jerome Flynn), and even the hostess of his apartment complex, Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tomlinson). 

The plot of the film is lackluster and mediocre at best; it lacks any driving force, and it is difficult to empathize with Van Gogh, let alone any of the peripheral characters. Nevertheless, the main vehicle of the film’s meaning is its artistic medium. Each scene and every character seems to shift and shimmer as though its very essence boils beneath the surface of the canvas, exhibiting itself externally in the shifts of the painting’s colors and brushstrokes. The film ends with one of Van Gogh’s most under-appreciated quotes:

“What am I in the eyes of most people—a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person—somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then—even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”

By bringing Van Gogh’s paintings to life, “Loving Vincent” gives us the opportunity to see the world in the same manner that the great master did. The film repeatedly prompts us to see the soul rather than the person. The flashbacks to Van Gogh’s life preceding his death are painted in black and white; the scenes are smooth, dull and lack the colored paintings’ vigor. As the protagonist Armand Roulin seeks to discover the impetus for Van Gogh’s suicide, he immerses himself within this convoluted series of flashbacks to no avail: There is no clear-cut reason why the troubled artist shot himself in the chest. 

Oddly enough, the fact that the plot is underwhelming, convoluted and aimless serves a distinct purpose. Ultimately, the film asks: What’s the point? What good does solving the mystery of Van Gogh’s death do, when it opposes his philosophy and his propensity for finding the life force that flows beneath the world like a warm energy? Ironically, it is the scenes set in the “present” — a few months after Van Gogh’s death — that best retain the energy that this master appreciated so dearly, rather than the scenes set during his life. This serves as a subtle reminder that in order to pay tribute to Van Gogh, we must forget the man and remember the harmony and music overflowing his heart and endowing him with such a marvelous vision of the world. Van Gogh appreciated life and its vitality, urging us to remain in the present and to live. As Marguerite Gachet (Saoirse Ronan), Van Gogh’s lover and the daughter of his psychologist, asks Armand, “You want to know so much of his death, but what of his life?” To truly love Vincent, we must find the life within and around us.