Prelude: A noisy 1980s London auction for van Gogh's Sunflowers dissolves to a 1880s vagabond-ish Vincent (Tim Roth) and brother Theo (Paul Rhys). Multi-million-pound bids of a distant future echo as Vincent declares he's becoming a painter.
Money from Theo keeps Vincent afloat while he pours himself into art study. Then Vincent takes in a prostitute, Sien Hoornik (Jip Wijngaarden) who models for him but eventually abandons him. Theo, an art dealer walking the aesthetic/commercial line, suffers similar female rejections.
His innovative paintings ignored, Vincent faults Theo. Theo pays Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin (Wladimir Yordanoff) to visit his brother in Arles, France, where he proceeds to challenge/mentor Vincent. But their dogmatic personas collide and Gauguin leaves. Anguished, Vincent cuts off part of his ear.
Theo marries Jo Bonger (Johanna Ter Steege) and fathers a child, but Vincent, now in a mental asylum, remains his priority. Entrusted to the care of overbearing philanthropist Dr. Paul Gachet (Jean-Pierre Cassel), Vincent, amid bouts of mad painting, eventually kills himself. Subsequently, Theo regards everyone an enemy, withdrawing inside himself as Vincent's lone champion. A year later he dies insane and is buried beside Vincent.
Preferable to the solipsistic Vincent, Vincent & Theo is a humanistic exposition akin to Surviving Picasso and Pollock. It's true to Vincent's letters and painting locales, and numerous painting/drawing reproductions add an authentic feel. Altman uses smart techniques like parallel-life intercutting and inventive symbolism--e.g., Gauguin's cooking-as-art lesson and the brothers' face-painting melancholy. Finally, Gabriel Yared's dissonant, foreboding score haunts from beyond.
Altman, in the DVD-extra Film as Fine Art, acknowledges a deliberate Expressionistic look, and Jean Lepine's cinematography articulates the Dutch artist hell-bent on capturing the truth in his subjects. Averse to posing, one scene has him drawing a slumbering model while another artist draws Vincent drawing. It's wonderfully representative of our inquisitive nature, our fascination with fascination itself. Later, a downward-spiral of a scene has Vincent smashing his canvas amidst a billowing throng of sunflowers, as if mocked by their unfathomable divinity.
This is a timid, prosaic Vincent van Gogh, antithetical to many other grandiloquent cinematic efforts. Tim Roth pursued the role diligently, and his portrayal is a gritty blend of obsession, rage, detachment, and terror. He also dead-on looks the role, his paint-stained teeth a nice touch. Paul Rhys' Theo is a touching realist flip-side to him, a frenetic pawn trapped between loving and longing.
Vincent tussles with his canvases and brushes, Theo with cold commerce. Ever shuttling between them, their interdependency is matched only by their despondency. Reflective of the artistic/pragmatic world juxtapositions, they're halves at odds, something nascent and warm between them never quite embraced. Though Theo gave his life for Vincent's legacy, it's debatable whether he understood him or if his constant attention fed Vincent's helplessness. The brothers' mutual conflict is one of identity, underscored by the diametrical statements of Gauguin and Gachet on the madness of artist and non-artist. Minus the romanticism, the beauty of the surviving masterpieces never outweighs the ugliness of their demise.
This anti-quixotic approach makes Vincent, especially, unlikable yet sympathetic. Despite branding him "mad as a hatter," Altman paints him multifaceted -- gifted but frail, staunchly uncompromising but aching for success. In a hopeless moment, Vincent swallows his paints, as if desperate to absorb all they've left him yearning for. It's been hypothesized that van Gogh was schizophrenic, the drastic color/form distortions of later paintings -- smoldering cypresses, cataclysmic skyscapes -- suggestive of an adored natural world perceived as equally malevolent. But his work shows trained complexity, and he endeavored to use color to balance his encroaching darkness. Indeed, in his final days of harried work it seems he was chasing, or being chased by, something in his art.
A weakness of the film is Roth's mumbling. Though character-appropriate, it makes it difficult to discern the often integral things he says. Also, the extended shots of Vincent stewing in his madness might feel overdrawn to some. For others, these empathetic two and a half hours can seem, like the lives, cut all too short.
Vincent & Theo accentuates the art-versus-society dichotomy. Did Vincent have to court insanity to create such stunning works? Is social alienation cause & effect to ground-breaking creation? Vincent, and Theo in his way, hated the hypocrisy he saw in the art of his time and was motivated to prove the world wrong and himself right. Did he equate artistic acclaim with self-worth? The brothers' posthumous successes clash with their life failures and, ultimately, the story of lost humanity overshadows these 2,000-plus artworks.
Nevertheless, those artworks remain a way to view the love behind the images of "God" Vincent was so obsessed to capture. Art, as all-involving religion, both sapped him and became his everything. If the recipe for genius is selling one's soul, it might be synonymous with that annihilation-affirmation called martyrdom. We can overlook the tragedy by overvaluing the canvas. It's easy to get lost in the resplendence of an original van Gogh. Alas, our world hasn't yet evolved to that level of beauty. It still requires its sacrifices.
Run time: 138 mins
In Theaters: Friday 27th April 1990
Distributed by: Hemdale Film Corporation
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Fresh: 21 Rotten: 3
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Director: Robert Altman
Screenwriter: Julian Mitchell
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