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DVD Review Of Vincent & Theo

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/14/07

 

  Vincent & Theo, a 1990 film by director Robert Altman, may be the worst film ever made by a major director who has made a great film. Watching this two hour and twenty minute abomination left me, and my wife, stunned by its wretchedness. From the nonexistent narrative, to the indulgence of every artistic clichť imaginable by screenwriter Julian Mitchell, to possibly the worst soundtrack, by Gabriel Yared, ever used in a film (even worse than the estimably bad Robot Monster!), itís a wonder Altman ever crawled his way out from under the odium of this horrorshow, the nadir of his career- even more so than Popeye a decade before. Yet, his very next film, The Player, somehow relaunched his career. If I can indulge a clichť, maybe it really can be darkest before the dawn!

  This film was, if the accompanying featurette on the film is correct, originally conceived as a BBC miniseries, and Altman was approached by its producers while he was living in France. Altman balked, then reconceived it as a feature film once the miniseries idea was passed on. That may explain, but not excuse, the disjunct structure of the film, since much of the screenplay was probably tossed out willy-nilly, but not the atrocious and often hammy acting. Too often characters explode emotions in the film before we have any reason to grasp why, and see what developed to lead them to that explosion. That this film helped launch Tim Rothís film career is puzzling since, of the six or so films Iíve seen him in, this is his worst performance, by far! And other than the so-so featurette the DVD only has a trailer.

  Roth plays Vincent Van Gogh, and Paul Rhys plays his brother Theo, the art dealer. If Roth is atrocious, Rhys is unbelievably abominable as the fey shambling syphilitic who ends the film insane and shaking nakedly in what appears to be a jail cell, abandoned by his wife and child, after Vincentís stupidly killed himself. Altman was clearly going for an Ďimpressionisticí feel with this film, but by showing scenes that do not build on one another, and are poorly wrought and acted, it defeats the very purpose of recapitulating one art form in another. Nothing coheres intellectually nor emotionally. For example, in a scene where painter Paul Gauguin (Wladimir Yordanoff) has come to live with Vincent in southern France, Vincent goes wacko, seems to try to swallow a knife blade, as he squats on top of Gaugin in bed, then plants a passionate kiss on him. Is this to imply Vincent is a nut, or just a homosexual? One is not sure. I didnít care either way, by that juncture in the film.

  Itís been a number of years since I saw the 1956 film on Vincent Van Gogh, Lust For Life, based on the Irving Stone novel, directed by Vincente Minnelli, but I recall it was far superior to this tripe. There, Vincent was played by Kirk Douglas as a passionate artist, with problems, whose work was at the forefront. Altman has Roth play Vincent as a raging psychopath with a brush. Theo was seen, in the earlier film, as a sane man, while Altman casts his syphilitic Theo as almost as nuts as his older brother. The earlier film also had a very memorable soundtrack, scored by Miklos Rosza, whereas Gabriel Yared uses an odd industrial rock soundtrack which infects the film with dissonant sounds that seem to portray Vincent Van Gogh as a punk rocker, not a tormented artist, and this even during a scene where Vincent is being eulogized as he lays in his casket. Bizarre, awful, and wholly inappropriate.

  Unfortunately, virtually every scene- save the first, where Altman wisely intercuts the opening scene of the two brothers in an argument over Vincentís decision to Ďbecome an artistí with a London auctioning of Van Goghís work for millions of dollars- in this dismally long film is like that cemetery scene. There is no sense to be made from this film, save that great artists suffer, syphilis rots the mind, and the arts world is filled with phonies and sycophants. This is what this film was needed for? Both Rhys and Roth play the brothers Van Gogh in one note (or two): weird and weirder. Yes, we see brief snippets of the women in their lives, such as Theoís shrewish and selfish wife Jo Bonger (Johanna Ter Steege), and a few other hangers-on, but none with a significant enough role to leave an impact.

  I have still yet to see a successful film made on the life of a real artist, where all the clichťs were not utilized. Perhaps the closest to that ideal was Amadeus, save for the fact that its protagonist was not Mozart, but Salieri, and the story was the latterís envy of the formerís talent, and the truth was that that whole film was an almost total fiction.

  This film, however, does not even address the artistic impulse, and the paintings, which is the ONLY reason anyone gives a damn about Vincent Van Gogh, his suffering, or even his brother. Altman states, in the featurette, that what interested him were Vincentís letters to Theo, yet we NEVER get a hint of what they say, only one ridiculously melodramatic scene where a raving Theo bitches at his wifeís opening up of the letters.

  Altmanís always been at his best in ensemble pieces, like Nashville, M*A*S*H, The Player, and Gosford Park. He seems utterly adrift in this intense de facto two person stage play where both actors wildly overact, as if they were in a Roger Corman 1960s comic-horror version of Lust For Life, save with British accents, not Dutch.

  Vincent & Theo is a horrible film, in its own stolid way as bad as Steven Spielbergís Saving Private Ryan or Schindlerís List, but it seems even worse because Spielbergís never come within a light year of a film as complex as Nashville. There is no progression nor insight into Vincent Van Gogh in this film, nor even his brother. When the brothers die we do not care, nor do we have an iota of insight into Altmanís ideas on life and art. Vincentís graffiti that ĎI AM THE HOLY SPIRIT. I AM WHOLE IN SPIRIT.í are not only dull and trite, but not given a shred of evidence one way nor the other by Altman. I could go on and on, and list a few dozen other reasons why this is easily Altmanís worst film, and a terrible film, period, but hopefully Iíve earned enough trust with my readership that I can tell them to simply skip this one and watch Lust For Life instead. Itís a better film, and more intellectually honest, to boot. Ok, exhale!

 

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]

 

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