Sunday, 28 April 2013

Vincent and Theo (1990)


Let me explain. From my experience, Altman has always had the perfect view point of the kind of hazy, satirical, sprawling film few strive to create, and even fewer get right. Vincent and Theo is a completely different film from any Altman I have seen before. It is simply a suffocating, unwavering portrait of madness. And boredom. Good god, this movie is boring! But similarly to Andrei Rublev, the film is a visual treat, it just isn't very interesting. There are ten minute long scenes of Tim Roth painting in a field, then getting mad, and painting again. 

However, this is part of it's style. It seeps around the viewer, and then recedes as if nothing of much importance had occurred at all. There are moments of absolutely brilliant work. Some scenes jump out of the screen and look almost exactly like a painting. In a visual respect, it rivals the unadulterated beauty of Days of Heaven. In any other respect, it lacks. Perhaps I should explain a little. This movie is about Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo. And yes, at one point you get to see someone cut part of their ear off. 

What I said above is true, but there is another aspect to it. This film has two main noticeable strengths. The cinematography, and the performances. That is where the word suffocating comes into play. Both Tim Roth and Paul Rhys are terrific in the roles of Vincent and Theo van Gogh. The problem is, they are too good. They are so good, that they get really tiring after a while. Roth brings an untapped intensity to his role, and this kind of ferocious portrayal of a man with so many demons makes it hard to keep watching after a while. Rhys, is the exact opposite. He is incredibly introverted, yet he possess the same anger as Vincent. It comes out in bursts, before he comes back to his senses. 

Both Roth and Rhys help make the film into some more watchable. Perhaps I was not the right kind of person for this film. I don't love Van Gogh, and I don't care much for 140 minutes of painting. Yet I can most definitely appreciate all that the film has to offer. I love "Starry Night" as much as the next man, unless the next man is a 19th century art critic (Guffaw), but watching a tortured man paint is not my idea of fun. Although, if you like watching paint dry, this is the film for you. (No, literally. Paint. Drying.)

There is more than enough in this film to call it a masterpiece, but there is not enough to support such a claim. Eventually, this film collapses under the weight of it's own heft. We are left feeling not much, and this does not harm us as we did not care enough in the first place. In our review for Secret Honor, we compared Phillip Baker Hall to Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood. This film is trying to be There Will Be Blood, but it can't quite make it. It is most certainly not the fault of it's director, nor it's cast. It's kind of like that painting in the back of the museum. It's beautiful to look at, and you may even call it a masterpiece, but if you stare long enough you begin to notice it has cracks. And the more you stare, the bigger they get.

Now, when I think of it, the film is slowly settling into my mind. I am realizing, slowly, how I feel about it. And my feeling is this. It's gorgeous, but as thin as a sheet of paper. Both Roth and Rhys are the paint of the paper, and Altman is the painter. But even a master can't work when his canvas is bad. The problem is, this isn't a very interesting story. It just isn't. And Altman does nothing to liven it up. The lead actors are terrific, and in the supporting roles Johanna Ter Steege is terrific as Rhys's troubled wife and Wladamir Yordanoff as Paul Gauguin. Ter Steege, who was excellent in The Vanishing, gives a similarly troubled performance. She cares, perhaps too much, for her husband and he is part of her downfall. She is excellent. Yordanoff plays well against Roth, being the silent type as opposed to Van Gogh's troubled artist. Roth, who at one point gives us a much closer look into Van Gogh when he pins down Gauguin and kisses him passionately. Gauguin runs away from Vincent after this encounter and this marks the point when Roth begins to spiral downwards.

Also excellent is Jean-Pierre Cassal as the last doctor who visits van Gogh. He is overprotective with his daughter and his social facade thinly masks his inner self. These performances help give the film it's edge. Without them, the film would most certainly suffer. The script, written by Julian Fellows does nothing much in particular to give the film a special edge. He instead choose to remain obtuse and ponderous. He documents van Gogh's life, instead of inhabiting it. The brothers van Gogh are held at arms length. We never get close enough to form an opinion.

The score is really good, but it is not suited to this film at all. It sounds like the score to a horror film, or some kind of thriller. Not a movie about Van Gogh. This brings me to the film's major strong point: It's visuals. It is absolutely gorgeous to look at. Some shots take one's breath away, and you can just stare at them for a long time. I compared this film to Days of Heaven in such a respect (I love that film), but this is truly something special. It looks like a Van Gogh at points. The beauty of the outdoors contrasts the cramped, cold interiors. A field of flowers isn't the most obvious choice for madness, but here it works beautifully. If you are going to see this film, this would be your reason.

Finally, we arrive at Altman's direction. To speak plainly, he doesn't do much of it. And this makes the film boring, and gives it a reflective quality that  it would have lost through a more invigorating approach. However Altman's lax approach also makes the film drag; something that makes someone check their watch more than once. However, if you like Van Gogh, than this is a film for you. It feels at points like a Van Gogh painting. Perhaps next week I will wake up and realize that this film is amazing, but right now, it is good, but it isn't great.

Vincent and Theo,
Starring: Tim Roth, Paul Rhys and Johanna Ter Steege
Directed by Robert Altman
6.5/10 (C+)

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