Those Talented, Tempestuous Van Goghs: 'Vincent and Theo'

Robert Altman’s beautiful film reminds us of Van Gogh's genius and provides an intimate portrait of two brothers bound by their love of art.

Vincent & Theo

Director: Robert Altman
Cast: Tim Roth, Paul Rhys
Distributor: Olive Films
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Orion Pictures
US Release Date: 2015-03-24
Official Site

The trailer to Vincent and Theo (1990) proclaims that this film is “a portrait by Robert Altman”. Indeed, this biopic of artist Vincent Van Gogh (Tim Roth) and his younger brother Theo (Paul Rhys) is a beautifully filmed illustration of the men behind the now-famous paintings. In one scene, the camera caresses golden sunflowers swaying in a field. Close-ups of the flowers fill the frame and create the illusion of a sunny painting, not so different from Van Gogh’s many still-lifes of a vase of sunflowers. The camera next tracks the artist, literally out standing in his field, as he attempts to portray the flowers’ glory. Moments like this make Vincent and Theo a cinematographically mesmerizing film.

Altman’s portrait, however, never flatters the men; it intimately reveals the brothers through illustrations of Vincent’s or Theo’s daily lives, and the comparison between the two is heavy-handed. Although the brothers share a handful of scenes, including the awkward domesticity of living together in Paris before Vincent heads to the south of France (the setting for his physical and psychological downfall), the majority of the film is structured to pair first a scene of Vincent, living rough as he pursues his art, with an oppositional scene of Theo, living life as a young businessman who often pursues romance. The contrast between their lifestyles is glaringly apparent. Whereas Vincent befriends and later shares a home with a pregnant former prostitute and her daughter, Theo tries to increase his commissions as an art dealer so that he can properly woo marriage-minded young women.

Nevertheless, Theo is hardly a paragon of propriety. As the film mentions more than once, he suffers from syphilis. The film portrays both brothers’ obsessions and passions by intercutting scenes that create a timeline of pivotal moments in each man’s life while always indicating the ties to family and art that bind the brothers.

In the months leading to the 125th anniversary of Van Gogh’s death (29 July 2015), the public is being treated to a wealth of biographical information and exhibitions. The newly released Blu-ray of Vincent and Theo provides insights into Vincent’s work and personality that likely will be new to a majority of viewers. Altman’s film illustrates the modern trend of trying to find "the real Vincent Van Gogh" beneath more than a century of romantic interpretations. The audience’s first view of Vincent shows him sprawled on his bed in the tiny cottage he calls home. Although his current profession is as a preacher in the Belgian Borinage, he recently has begun sketching the poverty-stricken miners. The unkempt would-be artist wears plain, wrinkled clothes, and his dirt-smudged cheeks and blackened teeth create a frightening visage when he smiles. “I’m going to be a painter,” Vincent casually announces to his brother.

Theo, looking at the sketches pinned to the cottage walls, snickers. Vincent’s rough drawings of peasants do not remotely resemble the paintings displayed by Goupil’s. As an art dealer for this prestigious firm, the fashionably dressed Theo is the opposite of Vincent. Nevertheless, he tries to balance his professional life as a young businessman with his familial responsibility to help emotionally and financially support his older brother.

Art versus commerce is a prominent theme throughout the film, and Theo, as a dealer selling paintings to clients, is at odds with Vincent, who believes in art for its own sake, even if the artist fails to receive a paycheck. Altman begins the film at a Christie’s auction where one of Vincent’s sunflower paintings is being sold. The bids climb into tens of millions of dollars, quite an ironic contrast to the fact that Theo only sold one of Vincent’s paintings for a small sum during the artist’s lifetime. Goupil’s is portrayed as a company that will sell whatever its patrons will buy, much of what Vincent terms “crap”. Theo gradually comes to believe that he should showcase the works of lesser known artists and opens his own gallery, even if, as he complains early in his brother’s career, Vincent’s art “isn’t what people want”. Only when Theo’s failing health increases his worry about providing for his wife and baby does Vincent openly regret the financial strain he has caused his long-supportive brother.

Unless viewers are familiar with the vast correspondence between Vincent and Theo, they may previously have known nothing of Theo’s life. The brothers’ relationship is typically interpreted on stage or in film as far more sentimental and less openly contentious than is shown in this movie. There is no question that the brothers are emotionally bound to each other, but Altman’s portrait reveals the daily fluctuations in their tumultuous lives.

Viewers similarly unfamiliar with details of Vincent Van Gogh’s life may be confused by the presence of a number of unidentified characters. Because Altman filmed scenes with an intimacy that makes audiences feel as if they are in the same room as Vincent or Theo, the film lacks the explanatory exposition many viewers may need or expect when a new character arrives. Only by overhearing conversations and figuring out relationships by context can audiences identify who’s who in the Van Goghs’ social circle. This approach to biography increases the realistic nature of the portrayal but may also confuse the audience.

At times Roth makes Vincent seem a bit too wild-eyed or instantly angry, but the main problem is that neither he nor Rhys sounds particularly Dutch or, after years living in France, even a bit French. (The movie was filmed in the Netherlands and France with several Dutch or French actors.) Vincent may introduce himself by saying “I was a Dutchman. Now I’m a Frenchman,” but he sounds far more English. At one point, a flirtatious woman sharing wine with Theo at an outdoor café asks if he is German. Because the actors’ accents fluctuate, audiences may also wonder from where these brothers linguistically hail.

Despite such distractions, Vincent and Theo is an insightful biopic that can introduce the public to the artist’s work and personal life and grant a colorful peek into the European art world of the late 1800s. The Blu-ray edition only includes the original trailer as an extra, which is not surprising for the release of a 1990 film, but it is well worth watching to see how the film was marketed.

Because Altman’s detailed portrait of Vincent Van Gogh is sometimes surprisingly crude as well as hauntingly beautiful, it captures the spirit of the artist’s daily working life and passion for art. This biography does far more than dramatically build to the two “crazy” events that sometimes define the limit of public knowledge about Van Gogh’s personal life: Vincent slicing off part of his ear and later committing suicide. The film portrays both actions with a notable lack of cinematic fanfare; they are simply two more events in the tempestuous artist’s life. Through the film’s lush colors and carefully framed shots, viewers can best understand the creativity and singular beauty of Van Gogh’s vast body of work. That alone is a tribute worth revisiting during this anniversary year.

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