While watching this film, Judge Jesse Ataide felt a tremendous urge to cut off his ear. He got a haircut instead.
"Two Van Goghs…one obsession."
Everybody knows the story of Vincent Van Gogh: the artist who cut off his ear and whose paintings were deemed worthless during his own lifetime but are now among the most expensive ever sold at auction (in the range of a half billion dollars or more). In Vincent and Theo celebrated director Robert Altman (Short Cuts) attempts to trace the events and influences in Van Gogh's personal life that shaped the unique artistic vision that created hundreds of paintings that continue to dazzle and amaze countless museum-goers to this day.
Facts of the Case
As one might expect from the title, Vincent and Theo is the story of the brothers Van Gogh: Vincent and Theo. The film explores the intense and turgid connection between the older brother Vincent (Tim Roth, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) and his younger brother Theo (Paul Rhys, From Hell), a sibling relationship that often borders on the creepy. As Vincent paints down in Provence, Theo is back in Paris working as an art dealer trying to sell his brother and other Impressionist and Modernist artist's work to an unappreciative public. Neither finds much material success in their vocational pursuits, and both struggle with personal demons that threaten to destroy not only their tangled relationship with each other, but their own sanity as well.
It's easy to find comparisons between Vincent Van Gogh and Robert Altman. Both march to the beat of their own drums. Both have been described numerous times as maverick; eccentric. Both are visionary artists with an undeniably unique vision that changed the respective art forms that they worked in. Perhaps there was some element of identification on Altman's part as he made Vincent and Theo, which is why it ended up being one of his most intimate films.
When he was approached with the script that would eventually turn into Vincent and Theo (it had been originally conceived as a four hour BBC production), Altman had been what scholar Robert Self describes as an "artist in exile." His glory days in 1970s Hollywood long behind him, and the days when monster hit M*A*S*H and art house masterpieces like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville placed him alongside Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Peter Bogdanovich, and Mike Nichols on the cutting edge of modern American cinema a distant memory, Altman had retreated to the world of independent cinema and cable television in an effort to continue to work on highly personal experimental projects which largely failed to connect with both audiences and critics. Vincent and Theo marks the end of this phase of Altman's career, however, for the next year would see the release of The Player, whose overwhelming success (including an Oscar nomination for Best Director) revived the director's career and led to an "Altman renaissance" of sorts, which have yielded such cinematic gems as Short Cuts, Gosford Park and The Company. The much anticipated A Prairie Home Companion, rumored to be released sometime next year, seems poised to continue the string of Altman hits.
But what about Vincent and Theo? Though the instantly recognizable Altman style is still present—overlapping dialogue, sprawling narrative, constant improvisation, zooming camerawork—this film lacks the overwhelming scope of Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts, and many of Altman's most famous films. Rather, it seems more in line with the "intimate epics" like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us, and the phenomenal 3 Women that he created in the earlier parts of his career. Vincent and Theo marks a turning inwards: an intense examination of a pair of characters who share a complicated bond that ultimately destroys them both.
As I review Vincent and Theo, I wish that I have seen Vincente Minnelli's celebrated Van Gogh biopic Lust for Lust, if only for comparisons sake. Altman's film is not a "biopic" in the traditional sense—it's the parallel stories of both the celebrated artist and his brother (if the title itself isn't an indication, both characters share about equal screen time). But what makes Vincent and Theo so interesting is that it depicts Theo to be just as emotionally flawed, socially inept, and tragic as his famous brother. While Vincent attempts to translate his overwhelming artistic impulses into colors and shapes on canvas, Theo is wrestling just as fervently to sell his brother and the Impressionist artist's maligned paintings to the indifferent Parisian art world. Vincent fails at a number of sexual and romantic relationships with prostitutes; Theo's secret struggle with syphilis prevents him from expressing his sexual and romantic desires. And beneath it all is an ambiguous, underlying homosexual element that is most obviously expressed when Vincent unexpectedly kisses fellow artist Paul Gauguin (Wladimir Yordanoff) on the mouth in the middle of a blind rage, but also seems an unspoken element in the brother's relationship, which at times seems to border on the incestuous.
As Vincent, the always-underrated Tim Roth shines—playing up the eccentricities and the paradoxes of the famous artist for maximum affect. But he also manages to find the humanity amid the bizarre behavior, imbuing his performance with moments of exquisite sensitivity that punctuate the expected bouts of anger and madness. In the less showy role, Paul Rhys is also quite good, capturing the emotional delicacy and weakness of Theo's character that serves as an effective yin to Vincent's dominating yang.
Altman's work behind the camera also betrays the work of a director fully confident and in control of his abilities as an artist. Vincent and Theo, though lacking the structural fireworks that dazzle as much as disorient the viewer in films like Nashville and Gosford Park, is a masterfully directed film. Like in most of his films, Vincent and Theo boasts one tour-de-force scene, appropriately set in a field of sunflowers where Vincent is painting. Suddenly the camera flies out of control: jump cuts from different angles zero in on individual flowers before zooming back out while the moody, atonal score by Gabriel Yared (The English Patient) blares full force. Bewildering as much as it is aesthetically beautiful, the scene fully captures Vincent's charged emotions and growing mental instability. It's one of Altman's most effective scenes as an artist, which helps make Vincent and Theo overall a worthy inclusion to Altman's lengthy and varied filmography.
MGM has given this film an admirable release: the original 1:85:1 aspect ratio is retained, which goes a long way in showcasing the visual images and elements (including multiple shots of Van Gogh's own paintings). The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo is decent but more than serves its purpose; English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided.
Besides the original theatrical trailer and some standard MGM promotional bits, this disc contains only one bonus feature, but thankfully, it's a quality one. Robert Altman and his son Stephan Altman (who served as art director of the film) both reminisce about the film, focusing on the visual style and technical maneuvers it took to develop the look they were striving for. Bizarrely, an older series of interviews, including brief comments from both Roth and Rhys, are ham-handedly interjected into the middle of the recent interviews, but the information the older material contributes is a welcome addition in helping to round out the otherwise interesting and informative featurette.
If you're not expecting a Nashville, a Short Cuts, a McCabe and Mrs. Miller, or a 3 Women, Vincent and Theo just might turn out to be an unexpected surprise. It's not one of Altman's best films but it's a very good film in its own right—which means that it's better than most.
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Scales of Justice
• "Film as Fine Art" Featurette with Robert Altman and Stephan Altman
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