Film Review

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: VINCENT & THEO (1990)

Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo begins amid an industrial clang of a score by Gabriel Yared over a vibrant smear of colored oil paints which suddenly shifts to a Christie’s auction in which Vincent Van Gough’s 1888 still life, “Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers,” is going up for sale, climbing higher and higher in value as ridiculous amounts of money are outbid by even more ridiculous amounts. As the auction’s image gives way to a disheveled Vincent (Tim Roth coming in like a force of nature), crumpled up on a bed like a graying wet newspaper and awaiting a chewing out by his more responsible and nattily dressed brother, Theo (Paul Rhys perfectly camped out on the edge of an emotional outburst), the audience is given a sense of how much people are paying for pain and debasement when they’re investing in a Van Gough. For the disparity between a pauper’s life of misery and anguish and the revered saint of post-impressionistic art whose works can now fetch the price of a small island state is a vast one, indeed.

But Vincent & Theo isn’t about the raving mad Vincent Van Gough, although it has plenty of that. As Altman’s film is a two-hander and there is as much Theo as there is Vincent, it is a full examination of co-dependency and masculine love, almost becoming the California Split of painter biopics. But it’s also making a comment on the very tenuous and special relationship between the crazy, hedonistic, and unchained artist and the very real, very tangible world of dollars and cents that have to be considered which generally takes a cooler and more centered head to navigate. How in the wild world do these two things exist in a relationship?

I don’t know but it sounds an awful lot like the relationship between a producer and a director which is why Robert Altman seems so keen on this project. It’s a meditation about the heavy conflict between creation for sanity and curation for profit which dogged Altman almost throughout his entire career. While his work mostly settled on American culture and dotted the entire map like a beautiful quilt, Altman’s Vincent & Theo is decidedly outside the confines of the United States and, in terms of laying all of his out in chronological order, predates everything else in his canon, setting itself out to be an origin story of the independent artist guided by a mad spirit that cannot be defined.

Smartly written by Julian Mitchell, the story of Vincent & Theo is bracketed between Vincent’s desire to become a painter and his suicide, with his brother Theo, an art exhibitor and dealer, always playing the shadow side of the narrative coin. If 3 Women is Altman’s most Lynchian film, Vincent & Theo is almost Cronenbergian in its vision of intertwined beings who can hardly thrive without each other’s influence on the other. And while this dichotomous relationship certainly didn’t originate with Vincent and Theo Van Gough, Altman directs it like it did. By utilizing bold and rich colors to express mood and setting, time and place, Vincent & Theo is front-loaded with a crisp and stately style that feels very controlled while still registering as Altmanesque, preceding the brilliantly shaggy Masterpiece Theater approach taken with Gosford Park a decade later.

Vincent & Theo, helped in no small way by Jean Lepine’s ravishing cinematography, does a marvelous job recreating some of Van Gough’s landscapes, subjects, and locations such as the hangout that was immortalized in “The Night Cafe” or the many number of rustic and vast fields touched golden by the bright and boisterous sunlight. Initially made for British television and composed of four 50 minute episodes that function like the seasons, the construction of the narrative, always creating a give and take between the two characters and showing yin and yang contrasts, is nothing short of breathtaking. In one scene, Vincent and his prostitute model/companion, Sien (Jip Wijngaarden), finalize their living arrangements with each other and in the next, Theo and Marie (Anne Canovas) discuss the same, followed by a monologue in which Theo reminisces about a painting he saw in which he wanted to enter and never leave. Cut to the following scene where Sien’s young daughter literally steps into the staging area of a panorama to micturate; both fulfilling Theo’s wish to enter a painting and also subverting it by pissing all over it. The staid domesticity of the syphilitic Theo and Marie is contrasted with the rawer, gritty poverty-laden life of Vincent and Sien with both men ultimately achieving the same result as both are eventually left alone and slathered in oils as if they were forever destined to the same fate. This goes on until the film begins to examine the relationship between Vincent and Paul Gaugin (Wladimir Yordanoff) who acts as a spiritual relation in the absence of Theo, married and in Paris, his own health slowly deteriorating. The relationship between Gaugin is volatile and competitive instead of nurturing and supportive, which causes a rapidity in Vincent’s mental decline which parallels Theo’s physical one. The madness that inhabited Vincent manifests itself in Theo in the films closing moments as, spiraling toward a death that would occur only the following year of his brother’s, voids his gallery of all commercial artwork and covers it, almost pathologically, with nothing Vincent’s work.

After spending a decade in the wilderness crafting mostly small, intimate adaptations of stage plays, with both Tanner ‘88 and Vincent & Theo, the latter of which had been edited down by an hour and released in theaters in November of 1990 to very positive notices, Robert Altman entered the new decade with two of his most ambitious and successful projects since the late 70’s under his belt. But during that period in which Altman had kept a lower profile and focused on the more intimate tasks at hand, Hollywood was beginning to reckon with smaller, independent studios encroaching on their territory and allowing inroads for newer, fresher talent. When all of this came to a head in 1989 with Steven Soderbergh’s modest sex, lies, and videotape which became THE story at the Cannes Film Festival by winning the Palme d’Or and emerging a small financial bonanza as it earned $24 million domestically against a $1.2 million production budget, the future of cinema was given a breath of fresh air. As it looked to be 1968 all over again, Hollywood again tapped the vein of the new blood who were all too eager to get their foot in the door and this push gave us the aforementioned Soderbergh, Whit Stillman, Quentin Tarantino, and Altman acolyte Paul Thomas Anderson.

“Do you always have to go so far on principle, Theo? Or does it come to you naturally?” is the first line of scripted dialogue in Vincent & Theo. It goes mostly unanswered by Vincent. But as the Hollywood tides turned and Altman’s mid-career artistic peaks were occurring at just the right time for someone to give the old master (who, by that point, had become a patron saint to the new class of filmmakers) a chance to get back into the majors, Altman would definitely give it an answer in his next endeavor.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

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