Please Note: The stills used here are taken from promotional materials and other sources, not the Blu-ray edition under review.
The artist's urge to create, despite overwhelming resistance from the outside world, gets a sympathetic if plodding treatment in the biopic Vincent & Theo. For those who weren't voraciously reading Premiere magazine back when this movie was released in 1990 (just me, then?), this was Robert Altman's arthouse take on Vincent Van Gogh's brief, turbulent life story. In Altman's capable hands, Van Gogh's struggle becomes a grim, grueling saga made with every intention to counteract the more cinematic portrayal seen in Vincente Minnelli's flowery, melodramatic Lust for Life (1956). The fact that actor Tim Roth (Reservoir Dogs) sports a set of gnarly, discolored teeth for his intense turn as Van Gogh says it all.
An emphasis on Vincent Van Gogh's relationship with his sensible brother, Theo, is another thing that sets Vincent & Theo apart from Lust for Life. The most influential person in Vincent's life, Theo was an art dealer who supported his brother's talents and served as Vincent's biggest (at times, only) champion despite his own meager earnings. Although popular imagination pictures Theo as a stable family man, like Vincent he had his own mental issues (deriving from catching syphilis). Their complicated back-and-forth gets thoroughly covered in Vincent & Theo, although screenwriter Julian Mitchell tends to gloss over Theo's positive, encouraging side. As portrayed with a nervous energy by Paul Rhys, the Theo in this movie emerges as Vincent's other half, as vulnerable and mentally damaged as his more famous brother. That approach lends itself to some intense, memorable acting by Rhys and Roth, even though it seems historically fishy. What Vincent & Theo presents is an unrelentingly grim view of the brothers' relationship - two damaged men trapped in a cycle of leaning on, then violently rejecting, each other.
Altman likely saw an opportunity to do something different when he took on Vincent & Theo, which was originally shown as a 3-1/2-hour television miniseries before getting edited down to 138 minutes for its theatrical exhibition. While period pieces weren't his usual forte, the property did have two strong central roles that allowed for the improvisational, interpretive character-building seen in his other films. The director used footage from the record-breaking Christie's auction of Van Gogh's Sunflowers as the point of entry for the story, which contrasts that plush event with the gritty reality of Van Gogh in the 1880s as a struggling, foul-tempered misfit whom even his own brother strained to love. The movie goes right into Vincent in his prime, prolifically churning out paintings in a non-representational style as if guided by demons. Tim Roth's Vincent goes into a domestic partnership with Sien (Jip Wijngaarden), a hard-drinking prostitute, while Theo supplies him with enough cash and hope to keep going. The subtle, improvisational scenes that follow dramatize the everyday struggles of these two outcasts. While Theo mocks the sentimental tastes of the bourgeois customers at the gallery where he works - parents shielding their children's eyes from a mawkish neo-Classical nude - Vincent goes after the hypocrisy of a fellow artist who paints his own mistress while criticizing Vincent for wanting to have an authentic relationship with a common prostitute.
Despite its edited-down state, Vincent & Theo still feels like a stodgy, unrelentingly same-y film that indulges in the brothers' apparently never-ending misery. Things improve somewhat in the second half, when Vincent befriends fellow Impressionist Paul Gaugin (Wladimir Yordanoff) and sets up his own modest studio in Arles, France (Altman used the actual locations for these scenes, helping greatly in their authenticity). Meanwhile, Theo's tentative romance with a Dutch friend's sister, Jo (Johanna ter Steege of The Vanishing), is given a sensitive treatment which highlights Jo's nobility and patience. Although the screenplay covers many events in Vincent and Theo's lives, it seems very myopic in focusing on the duo at the expense of Jo Van Gogh, Gaugin and Dr. Paul Gachet (Jean-Pierre Cassel), the generous French doctor who treated Vincent in his final weeks as a mental asylum patient. In the end, the story winds up being sprawling yet weirdly slanted and as fanciful as Lust for Life was.
In all honesty, Vincent & Theo doesn't hold up as one of Altman's finest, although it is interesting for fans of the director to check out certain scenes where he applied his organic, roll-the-camera-and-wait-for-the-magic technique. He certainly was an actor's director, and that works out well in this case for Roth and Rhys, who both turn in stunning work. The movie on the whole presents an incomplete view of Vincent and Theo Van Gogh, however, stuffily presented and topped off with a strange, discordant musical score. Being sandwiched between his acclaimed made-for-TV political sendup Tanner '88 and razor-sharp, satirical comeback The Player makes this plodding mess seemed like even more of an anomaly in Altman's career.
The Blu Ray:
Supplanting the 2005 DVD edition from MGM/UA, Olive Films' Blu Ray for Vincent & Theo sports an impressive looking 1.85:1 image. Going on screen shots from the earlier edition, it appears that the picture quality has been improved with sharper detail and a more realistic color palette. The Blu Ray edition in particular benefits from being remastered from a clean print with little in the way of flecks and damage, with fabric and skin textures coming through especially well.
The English-language 2.0 Stereo soundtrack is a good, subtle mix that complements the film's realistic visuals. While musical passages seemed somewhat strident, the dynamic range is set at a pleasant levels with hardly any noticeable distortion. As usual with Olive, no subtitles are included.
The film's Theatrical Trailer, touting Altman's direction over the story and actors, is the sole bonus on this disc. The "Film as Art" featurette included on MGM's DVD edition in 2005 is absent.
As someone who loves both Tortured Artist historic dramas and the cinema of Robert Altman, 1990's Vincent & Theo came as a dreary disappointment. Tim Roth does a phenomenal job of portraying Vincent Van Gogh's anguish, however, while Paul Rhys searingly puts across the taxing burden of Theo, the artist's brother and sole supporter. Olive's Blu Ray edition is a pretty nice if bare-bones presentation of this plodding, minor Altman film. Rent It.