Vincent van Gogh has been picked over by so many biographers, art critics, psychologists, neurologists, songwriters, amateur sleuths and historians that he's become perhaps the leading symbolic suffering artist of all time. What exactly he symbolizes is up for grabs, but the fecundity of his talent is matched only by the fecundity of the interpretations of his life. The one constant in all these analyses, however, is that Van Gogh's life was inseparable from his art.
Leave it to Robert Altman to change all that. "Vincent & Theo," which he directed from a script by Julian Mitchell, has something to do with the "artistic temperament" but it's not really about Van Gogh the artist--at least not in any explicit sense. You can learn more about his artistry from a two-page monograph, or by spending the afternoon at the current Norton Simon Museum exhibition, than you can from this film's two-plus hours.
Altman isn't interested in the usual "Masterpiece Theatre" bio-pic approach; this is not his version of "Lust for Life." What he's come up with is something far more knotted and inchoate and aggravating than that. It's a tortuous, unsatisfying movie, but it's not like any other film I've ever seen about an artist, and it has sequences of blinding intensity.
Made originally as a four-hour miniseries for television and cut back for theatrical release, the film (at selected theaters) is about the mysterious, near-mystical interaction between Vincent (Tim Roth) and his brother Theo (Paul Rhys). Theo, an art dealer in Paris, tried for years without success to sell Vincent's art, and died not quite six months after his brother shot himself to death in a wheat field in Auvers-sur-Oise.
Compared to Vincent, Theo has gotten decidedly short shrift in the art history annals, but his influence on his brother--financial, aesthetic and spiritual--was considerable. Vincent's published letters to him often read like an impassioned, running communion with his own inspiration. Surprisingly, Altman and Mitchell don't make use of these letters, but their entire film is charged with the rawness of feeling which inspired them. "Vincent & Theo" derives some of its meaning from what we already know about Van Gogh's life and art, but it's meant to exist independently of that knowledge, or perhaps as an adjunct to it. It's really a movie about the mysteries of kinship, and that's both the source of its power and its chief limitation.
The filmmakers push a creepy, Corsican Brothers approach to Vincent and Theo. They're linked by their own deranged furiousness; they match each other's manias. Particularly in its first hour, the film is constructed as a series of parallel scenes between the two. Theo has the fashionably Romantic look of a consumptive poet--he was, in fact, syphilitic--but his lyrical features connect with Vincent's taut, terrier-like looks, with his bristly red hair and paint-blackened teeth. Their eyes have the same maddened intensity; even in repose, energy pours out of them. And Tim Roth and Paul Rhys work with the same levels of intensity. Their scenes together are rapt, jangly, eruptive.
Roth's Van Gogh is wracked by his compulsion to express himself at any cost, and yet he's bullying about his sensitivities. He may be a victim but he comes across more like a nut-case marauder. His paints, which he applies to the canvas in thick, lascivious strokes, are like life blood. When he tears up a canvas, it's a form of self-mutilation as surely as the slicing off of his earlobe.
Roth's performance is prodigious but it's also a clue to the film's limitations. It's so closed off, so bound up in itself, that it never quite connects with us. It's a bit like watching one of those psychodramatic, groove-on-your-madness experimental theater turns, and the overweening narcissism of it all doesn't tell us anything more about Vincent than the conventional approaches did. It's just showier and nuttier.
There are brief bursts in this film that demonstrate just how good Altman can be. The scenes in Arles between Vincent and Gauguin (well played by Wladimir Yordanoff) are beautifully drawn; Vincent's solitude never comes across so forcefully as when he's paired with this artist. The scene where he destroys his canvasses in a field of sunflowers has an almost oracular power. In moments like these Altman gets so far inside Vincent's impacted agonies that the effect is almost dizzying.
But "Vincent & Theo" (rated PG-13) never feels like a movie that comes from Altman's core. Many of the scenes, particularly those involving Theo in Paris, feel stilted and off-key. Perhaps it's only by identifying with Vincent's torments and neglect that Altman works up the vigor to make this film his own. "Vincent & Theo" can be read as a symbolic version of Altman's own artistic battles in the Hollywood factories; Vincent's infuriated self-martyrdom--at one point he refers to himself as the "holy spirit"--is emblematic of Altman's own condition. And perhaps this is why the film barely touches on Van Gogh's artistry: It's the neglect, and not the neglected work itself, that is the real subject of the film.
The infernal, twin-like symbiosis that Altman postulates between Vincent and Theo is an exciting dramatic construction. But, like his raging-bull view of Van Gogh, it ultimately takes away as much as it adds to our own realization of Vincent. By dispensing with the nature of Van Gogh's art and depicting him resolutely from the outside, Altman is trying to scour the romanticism from his image. But in fact he's simply substituting one dubious mythology for another. In the process, he's shortchanged the sorrowful richness of Van Gogh's life and art, and of Theo's muse-like contribution to it.