Known for scene-scanning telephoto shots that seek to dissolve the traditional limitations of the frame, Robert Altman might have seemed a counterintuitive filmmaker to take on a film about painting, which must always work within a static canvas. But Vincent van Gogh, of course, is no ordinary painter. As portrayed by Tim Roth in the placid historical snapshot Vincent & Theo, van Gogh’s fatal frustration was his inability, despite a career-long knack for pictorially implying movement and spatial vibration, to get beyond the tyranny of the frame. If there’s a generous streak within Altman’s mournful, fatalistic period piece, it’s in granting van Gogh the pictorial totality that he never discovered as an artist. During one scene in a glowing poppy field, the iconic painter’s ecstatic attempts to translate the vibrancy of the foliage in paint strokes are answered by Altman’s flurry of zooming close-ups, whereby the film’s otherwise sedate montage suddenly quickens along with the bubbling of van Gogh’s creative juices. “God is everywhere,” rages the erratic artist during one of his soul-emptying tantrums, and in instances such as the one in the poppy field the usually agnostic Altman lets in glimmers of pantheism.
This director-to-subject commiseration would seem a natural byproduct of the fact that Altman, like van Gogh, struggled consistently with the business world throughout his career crafting work the only way he knew how. Vincent & Theo places the perennial art-commerce conflict squarely on the surface, embodied as it is by the central brotherly duo of Vincent, the tortured genius at odds with market trends, and Theo (Paul Rhys), the talentless businessman with neither the clout nor the cunning to smuggle his brother’s outsider art into the mainstream. Altman loosely based the film—originally conceived as a lengthier BBC miniseries—around the surviving letters shared between the siblings, and from the evidence on screen the relationship verged on parasitic, with Vincent relying on his brother’s finances even as he reamed him for being incapable of finding an audience for his work. The men are often seen alone in their respective environments (Vincent in his grubby apartments and in the company of only his spattered canvases, Theo in his stuffy galleries navigating the pretensions of colleagues and buyers), but whenever they share a scene together it’s a study in explosive, temperamental behavior, with long stretches of soft-spoken frustration occasionally erupting in guttural angst.
Despite the emphasis afforded to the stifling grip of commerce on the creative psyche, it would be a mistake to identify Vincent & Theo as an egomaniacal equation of one artist to a legendary icon. Altman goes to greater lengths to complicate this man than he does to understand him. Roth’s performance, on the one hand, is a quiet, distant one. He sulks through the film’s roomy frames like a foreigner in his own existence, back slumped and wide-brimmed hat shadowing his already soot-stained face into near-obscurity. Altman, for his part, doesn’t help us get any closer to this mysterious historical figure; whenever Roth’s shown in close-up it’s from a withdrawn, voyeuristic vantage point, or else partially blocked by a window frame or other foreground obstruction. While his environment and physical (non-)effect on it are given ample focus, van Gogh’s fundamental enigma remains intact; no talk of potato eaters or starry nights (indeed, his material output in general is hardly a presence) and only tangential rumblings about major biographical benchmarks like ear slicings and syphilis troubles.
What’s left is a collection of absences and omens. Vincent and Theo stare plaintively into mirrors, Theo grasps at a painted imprint of Vincent’s hand and Skull with Burning Cigarette shows up strategically behind Theo’s head shortly before his death. Because questions of the source and specificity of Vincent’s various illnesses are never addressed, Vincent & Theo creates the impression of a more existential malady etched across his constantly sullen expression and hunching gait—an infection caused less by poor habits, financial fatigue or a lack of caretakers than by a larger conflict with time and space. Communities, business trends, and tastes are evolving entities, Altman’s vital film reminds us, while genius is a rare beast that, if not nurtured, spoils the one who holds it.
Marked by shifting dialogue volumes and competing diegetic and non-diegetic stimuli, Robert Altman’s trademark sound mixes have always been difficult to evaluate according to conventional standards of tech quality, and that’s true of Vincent & Theo as well. When Tim Roth mumbles through a dangling tobacco pipe, it’s hard to say whether the resulting lack of sonic clarity is an intentional artistic effect or a third-party failure to resurrect the original fidelity, but whatever the case, the mix on Olive Films’ disc sounds true to an Altman mix—that is, dynamic, multilayered, and occasionally somewhat muffled. The visuals, on the other hand, can be said with more certainty to reflect Altman’s intention of mirroring the palette of van Gogh’s works. Scenes of day-to-day squalor share the shadowy monotone of something like The Potato Eaters, while moments of artistic rapture take on the vibrancy of van Gogh’s more upbeat nature paintings.
Until someone conducts another theatrical retrospective of Altman’s entire body of work, spotless Blu-ray presentations such as this will offer the best possible version of comparatively lesser-known gems in his career like Vincent & Theo.