Altman: Vincent and Theo (1990)

Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo occupies a curious position within his filmography. At the time, it was regarded as a return to form after a series of critical and commercial failures in the late 80s. Like so many returns to form, it also involved Altman reinventing himself to some extent, steering clear of both the ensemble dramas that he had perfected in the 70s and the more theatrical-styled outings of the 80s for a film that drew upon the accomplishments of both without quite being either. However, now that we can set Vincent and Theo against The Player, Short Cuts and the later part of Altman’s filmography, it feels less like a return to form in itself and more like a transitional work that led into the last great blooming of his career. Accordingly, Vincent and Theo feels odder, perhaps, in retrospect, than it did at the time – for a director whose filmography contains so many anomalies alongside such an apparently distinct auteurist style, it’s one of the strangest outings, unrecognisably the work of Altman in some ways and yet quite unfamiliar in others.


As the title suggests, Vincent and Theo is a historical drama – and the only European historical drama in Altman’s career – revolving around the intense relationship between Theo and Vincent Van Gogh, and drawn quite heavily from their voluminous epistolary exchanges. From the very outset, then, there is an onus upon Altman to define his film against Vincente Minnelli’s Lust For Life, which was released in 1956, and featured Kirk Douglas in the role of Vincent. Not only is this one of the most flamboyant depictions of an artist ever committed to the big screen, but it is so extravagant in its ambition to translate Van Gogh’s distinct palettes into mise-en-scene that it is hard to see how Altman could have made Vincent and Theo without consciously defining himself against Minnelli’s vision. In particular, Lust For Life would seem to have utterly exhausted any efforts to translate Vincent’s palette to the big screen, not least because Technicolor itself was something of an exhausted medium by the time that Minnelli had arrived at Metrocolor in the mid-50s. If Lust For Life is partly a biopic of Vincent, it is just as much Minnelli own’s retrospective glance back at his pioneering Technicolor confections of the 40s, as well as his attempt to come to terms with how they might translate into the tones and palettes of the 50s, once the shock of seeing a colour world emerge from black and white had started to fade a little.

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It makes sense, then, that Vincent and Theo is emphatically not a portrait of Vincent the colourist. Of course, there are a whole variety of other features that distinguish Altman’s vision from Minnelli’s. For one thing, the casting of Tim Roth suggests a much more introspective, much more “minor” depiction of the iconic artist than Kirk Douglas. For another thing, this is very much a depiction of the relationship between the brothers, as the title suggests, rather than a study of Vincent in splendid artistic isolation. Finally, Vincent and Theo was originally broadcast as a miniseries of four hour-long episodes. For those people, like myself, who have seen the “film” version (the entire miniseries is quite hard to track down), the effect is that of a redacted television event. Nevertheless, all of these features – which in their different ways play to Altman’s taste for distended and introspective narratives – are grounded in this refusal to present Vincent as a colourist and to instead focus on the particular sense of space and mise-en-scene present in his paintings.

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Put bluntly, then, Vincent and Theo is not a bright film. If anything, Altman often seems to pursue a consciously drab palette, taking advantage of the restrictions of television to mute all the tones and hues across his scenes. In lieu of Minnelli’s brilliant visions, we are here presented with Vincent the master of spatial arrangements and mise-en-scene, the Japoniste open to the vibrations and resonances in apparently incidental or accidental collections of people and objects. Similarly, in place of Minnelli’s narrative of artistic fixation and concentration, Altman offers a provisional, episodic structure that still feels quite elastic in its condensed cinematic form. At heart, it is a two-man performance, with Roth as Vincent, Paul Rhys as Theo and only Wladimir Yorganoff’s depiction of Paul Gauguin coming close to a third billing – a role that feels as if it might be dealt with in more detail in the television series, along with Gauguin’s competitive relationship with Theo as a surrogate brother and homoerotic confidant of Vincent. Nevertheless, for a film that hangs on two characters, the action feels just as decentred and dispersed as in any of Altman’s more ensemble dramas, in part because neither character is quite able to delimit his private world or personal space over the course of the film, just as Vincent is never quite able to detach his paintings from his own sensory immersion in the scenes and objects that inspire them.

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That inability to fully differentiate their personal spaces from each other gives the relationship between the two brothers a really dynamic quality – dynamic enough, in fact, to constitute the central drive of the film. For while there are various “narrative” threads that weave together over the course of the drama – Vincent and Theo’s failed romances, difficulties with money, concerns over the art market, movements between Paris and Provence – this odd space between the two brothers is in some sense the main subject matter and focus. While they are clearly interdependent, they can never quite find the right balance of dependency either, giving their brotherly love a crazed romantic quality at moments, while making it seem more like the relationship between father and son at other moments. Key to that dynamism is the physical intensity of the two actors, and while Roth may be centre-stage, putting in the kind of half-distracted performance he does so well – he looks a lot like Vincent – it is Rhys who really steals the show, putting in a wonderfully awry depiction of a man trying desperately to hold both his own sanity and his brother’s in check. Bound by a syphilitic symbiosis, both characters continually feel on the verge of a nervous breakdown – and yet the breakdown feels curiously incomplete when only one of them is experiencing it, just as the film can never quite bear to focus on one of them for too long.

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As a result, while great portions of Vincent and Theo unfold across fairly circumscribed spaces – cramped studios, claustrophobic attics – Altman’s camera never really settles, roaming and shifting focus as if moving amongst a much wider ensemble or attuning itself to a host of unseen and unheard voices. Long before we start to see Vincent’s madness, we can hear it in this ensemble soundscape, which often works best against the film’s many provisional exhibition venues. Cluttered and jammed with painting and objects d’art – on the wall, against the wall, on the floor – these are the perfect canvas for Altman’s roving gaze, which continually shifts between different planes amidst a perennial murmur of art dealers and gallery-goers, until it feels as if the market is the ensemble from which Vincent and Theo are continually and impotently trying to extricate themselves, just as Vincent is continually trying to extricate himself from other people’s paintings, or other people’s ideas of what painting should look like. In the process, Altman beautifully captures the ambience of Vincent’s paintings as they originally stood, in an ensemble, in dialogue with each other and all the detritus of everyday life, light years away from the splendid isolation of the Sotheby’s plinth that opens the film. Traversing the paths taken by the brothers’ massive epistolary exchanges more than the individual movements of the brothers themselves, Altman’s camera does to Vincent’s canvas what Vincent himself attempted to do to them – it subsumes any sense of a finished product into an ongoing sense of process and medium.

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Far from being self-sufficient spectacles in themselves, then, Vincent’s paintings here exist primarily as a communicative medium between himself and his brother, which is perhaps why Vincent and Theo often feels like an adaptation of the paintings themselves as much as a traditional biopic, and a way of restoring their immediacy at the tail end of the 80s art bubble. That willingness to present the artworks in situ, and to converge the film with their original exhibition venues, gives Vincent and Theo such an incredible authenticity and immediacy that Altman’s mise-en-scenes seem to inevitably and almost accidentally coalesce around Van Gogh’s most iconic images, rather than needing to resort to the more cultivated and self-conscious quotation of Lust for Life. It’s also one of the reasons why the film feels a little blank at times, since it equates itself with the spaces within which the action occurs just as radically as Nashville, Short Cuts or any of Altman’s most extravagant ensemble dramas, but to much more dramatic effect, since the ambit of the narrative is so circumscribed. By the time the film ends with Theo setting up a tribute gallery to Vincent “without a blank space on the walls,” it all plays as a reproach to the cool, crisp, white cubes that were so in vogue in art galleries at the beginning of the 90s, as well as the austerity and aggression of an art market that had largely dissociated art galleries from the public sphere.

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In other words, Vincent and Theo plays like Altman’s advocacy of the public art world as an ensemble space of the kind to be found throughout his body of work. Conversely, the dilemma of art exhibition as it stood at the beginning of the 90s seems to have acted as an incentive for Altman to revive and affirm his ensemble aesthetic, as well as its peculiar capacity to erase any clear-cut distinction between people, objects and surroundings. Nowhere is that clearer than in the second half of the film, which sees Vincent moving from Paris to Provence, where he discovers the subject matter that would preoccupy him during the most iconic phase of his career. In many ways, this is the moment in the film that would most seem to challenge Altman’s treatment of Vincent and most lend itself to Minnelli’s approach – the transition from Parisian to Provencal colours and textures, the unprecedented separation of the brothers, and the sudden distinction between indoor and outdoor life would all appear to lend themselves to the gradual awareness and articulation of painting as a realm that is somehow removed from the incessant clutter of everyday life.

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It’s remarkable, then, that the film doesn’t get any more colourful when Vincent arrives in Provence. Of course, there is inevitably more colour present in a scene shot in the middle of a field of sunflowers than there is in a scene shot in a Parisian tenement, but that in itself doesn’t necessarily make for a more colourful film. Instead, Altman offsets any residual lyricism by making this the moment at which Gabriel Yared’s abrasive, angular noise rock score comes into its own, subsuming any distinction between colour and drabness, or between Provence and Paris, with an overwhelming awareness of how internally divided Vincent himself is at this moment in his career. According to common wisdom – and certainly according to Minnelli’s version – Vincent’s movement to Provence was the moment at which he discovered his artistic vision, and in a more conventional film these Provencal sequences might be expected to function as romantic, pastoral interludes. In Altman’s version, however, Vincent only discovers himself in Provence by discovering just how radically he can collapse himself into his artwork when the right subject presents itself, as the Provencal light and scenery becomes a schizoid stimulus that refuses to allow itself to be represented from the critical distance of traditional landscape painting, just as the paintings themselves seem to refuse the historical distance of a conventional artistic biopic.

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From the perspective of Vincent & Theo, then, it is as impossible to “see” Vincent’s Provence from within the calmness of a contemporary gallery as it would have been impossible for Vincent himself to “see” the region from the coherent mindset that everyone in the film apart from Theo is continually trying to foist on him. Instead, both Vincent and the film progressively unsee Provence, thanks in part to Altman’s unwillingness to ever present the colours of the region first hand, with most of Vincent’s most iconic vistas only afforded the most cursory attention from the camera and the most colourful sequence revolving around Paul Gauguin’s preparation of a simple salad (“cooking is like painting”), which he models on one of Vincent’s colour schemes. Yet this process of unseeing isn’t simply a matter of abstracting Vincent’s paintings from the visual field of Provence, but – more spectacularly – connecting it to the auditory field, until his paintings feel more like frozen soundscapes than purely visual artefacts. Key to that, of course, is Yared’s’s score, but it’s also a testament to the role of sound in Altman’s own ensemble aesthetic, which, at its strongest, is almost more of a sonic signature than a visual one, a capacity to evoke multiple sounds and voices operating at cross-purposes in a single space (it’s no coincidence that his single greatest ensemble film is about the music recording industry). Here, he beautifully converges the soundscape of Provence – birdsong, crickets, distant thunder – with Vincent’s own inner voices and demons, while positioning Yared’s manic score at this slightly urgent and manic edge between ambient sound and inner music, imbuing Vincent’s final breakdown with an artistic inevitability and completely fusing it with the final trajectories of his body of work.

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If Lust For Life, presents Vincent as something of a late impressionist, then, Vincent and Theo is more interested him as an early expressionist, a precursor to the “great scream running through nature” that prompted Edvard Munch’s masterpiece whose only refuge is the attempted amputation of his own ears. Burying the last part of his life and death in an escalating maelstrom of noise rock, and tunnelling us deeper and deeper into the brothers’ fractured psyches, Altman manages to recover the extraordinary, musical dynamism of Vincent’s compositions for an era in which most people experience them second-hand and their profound powers of mise-en-scene and object arrangement would appear to have been entirely diluted. Once upon a time, these paintings presumably bristled with the hidden correspondences and cryptic dialogues of a perceptual outlook that was on the very brink of insanity – one object out of place, or one harmony that doesn’t resonate, would be enough to make the entire scene collapse in upon itself. And so it’s Vincent the ensemble artist that Altman ultimately resurrects and pays tribute to here, as well as the cinematic potentiality that lurked beneath Vincent’s hyperrealism and photodynamism, fulfilled in some ways by Minnelli’s version, but galvanized by all its lingering unfulfilment here as well.

About Billy Stevenson (936 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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