In terms of bankability, Robert Altman's career was at a low ebb in 1990, still a couple of years before his bounce-back movie, The Player. Yet he continued to turn out interesting alternatives to big-studio output. Vincent & Theo is a particularly worthwhile project, filmed in France and Holland and directed as if in pursuit of the same kind of artistic muse that Vincent Van Gogh was after. The film helped bring Tim Roth to international attention as well.
As far as Hollywood was concerned the Vincent Van Gogh story began and ended with Vincente Minnelli's 1956 Lust for Life, in which Kirk Douglas plays the artist as a frantic frustrated powerhouse. Like Cody Jarrett in White Heat, Douglas's Vincent seems ready to explode, and Minnelli took advantage of the dynamics to drench the screen with close-ups of paintings and rhapsodic Miklos Rosza music. In that film, Vincent's brother Theo is a calming influence, a sane man trying to help a lost soul.
Working in different times with a different sensibility, Altman isn't interested in an art appreciation movie with bombastic theatrics. He instead illuminates screenwriter Julian Mitchell's portrait of Vincent as a grungy outcast rejected by his world and barely tolerated by those he loves. He's selfish, egotistical and a hygienic disaster, but his commitment to his painting is total. Kirk Douglas did his best to appear to be the man who could create such startling canvasses, whereas Tim Roth quietly inhabits a tortured fellow expending all of his energy in one direction. Suffering from depression and clearly not helped by bouts of mental anguish, this Van Gogh creates as if it were a symptom of a disease.
Screenwriter Mitchell brings Vincent's brother Theo back into the picture, and his adventures in Paris (seen almost exclusively in interiors) show an equally sensitive fellow who is far more balanced mentally yet is losing a battle with ill health brought on by syphillis. Paul Rhys' Theo quietly plays the game to get ahead in the business world of art galleries, but remains an employee on commission. We see how little things have changed in the 120 years or so that have passed. The buyers go for trends ("What -ism is this now?") and have no eyes for the truly new or different. The bold and smooth-talking Paul Gauguin isn't selling particularly well, as his name hasn't yet been established; and Vincent's work is hopelessly shunted aside. The fact that his brother Theo is his only salesman is probably a detriment.
Altman gets heavily into the bohemian lifestyle. Theo has his wild times but wants to settle down with his best friend's sister from Holland; she's willing to commit to him even with his STD problem. Vincent is by contrast the kind of ragamuffin who can't be taken anywhere. Gentleman artists reject him for associating with prostitutes, with whom he sometimes shares his appallingly dingy room. The film stresses Van Gogh as a messy, disorganized man who absently smears himself with paint and frequently gets it into his teeth, which are themselves a disgraceful display of caries. It sounds like a cliché but Altman gets away with the notion that Vincent wants to become one with his oils. He cheerfully dips his fingers into the colors in an artist's store and smears paint on himself when he tries to face down his mad self in a mirror. Clearly insane over the very concept of color, he paints the face of a prostitute and ends up making himself into crimson-soaked statue with his own blood.
Theo has his own problems with impending mortality and functions as Vincent's straight-world twin. Perhaps grudgingly at first, he nevertheless supports Vincent and his work throughout the artist's brief career, as if trying to keep the creative part of his own soul alive. Theo is a prisoner of commerce and in some ways envies his brother's purity of purpose.
Altman's direction displays a keen interest in the creative process, almost from an autobiographical point of view. His camera retains its respect for the painter even when it shows his gaping flaws; it's easy to draw a parallel between Van Gogh and Altman the filmmaker who continued on his own course creating films after Hollywood slammed the door on him in the late 1970s. Altman understands artistic compulsion, and knows that no one need make excuses for it.
Tim Roth is appropriately intense as he rides his waves of manic depression; he doesn't ask for sympathy when it's apparent that he's losing his grip on himself. Paul Rhys' Theo is wracked with self-doubt but helped by outside encouragement (even his employers are better than they might be) and the love of a good woman. Amusingly, she's not a flighty Paris girl but a good home-grown lass. Theo strives for a stability he knows his body will never allow him.
The movie begins with a brilliant stroke perhaps inspired by Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time In America: A video shot of a Van Gogh masterpiece being bid up to 22 million dollars dissolves to the miserable Van Gogh arguing with his brother. Theo blanches at the idea that Vincent wants to start painting, while the audio of the auction over a hundred years later continues to be heard on the soundtrack. It's a great and indirect way to remind the audience that Van Gogh never sold a painting in his lifetime.
MGM's DVD of Vincent & Theo presents this colorful and carefully-filmed biographical drama in a fine enhanced transfer that allows us to appreciate the contrast between Altman and Minnelli's visions. Vincent works in locations that resemble his great paintings but cameramanJean Lépine doesn't try to make reality resemble works by Van Gogh. The contrast is seen right up front, where the sloppy main title card with its lettering barely on the screen seems a protest against the MGM film's carefully designed graphics.
A trailer is included (it has slightly richer colors than the transfer itself) along with a lengthy interview documentary with Altman and his son, production designer Stephen Altman. The talk rambles quite a bit but we pick up interesting details, such as the fact that Altman fils utilized the services of a number of French art students to create the many fake Van Gogh works in progress and seen hanging in Theo's private gallery. Altman also explains that the project started as a miniseries with the BBC, but when it was decided to go for a film release, he had to set aside two hours of 'backstory' material, which never saw the light of day. Tim Roth and Paul Rhys appear briefly in a couple of interview clips from the set of the film.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Vincent and Theo rates: