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MGM Studios DVD presents
Vincent & Theo (1990)

"I do believe in you. I just can't force people to buy what they don't want, that's all." 
- Theo van Gogh (Paul Rhys), to his brother, VIncent

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: October 07, 2005

Stars: Tim Roth, Paul Rhys
Director: Robert Altman

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for (some profanity, violence, mature subject matter, and the inevitable self-mutilation)
Run Time: 02h:20m:18s
Release Date: August 23, 2005
UPC: 027616927538
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

The paintings of Vincent van Gogh have become so iconic—in doctors' waiting rooms, on dorm walls, of course ubiquitous in museum shops—that they've come to rival even the sad story of his biography for ubiquity. Kirk Douglas comes immediately to mind, as does Martin Scorsese, in Kurosawa's Dreams; and then there's that damn Don McLean song, probably the only one of his besides American Pie that you can name. And in recent years, the money fever surrounding the occasional Van Gogh canvas when it comes on the market has always warranted mention on the evening news or the front page: they paid how much for one painting? So is it possible, then, to recover the man, the deeply troubled man, who made these haunting images?

Robert Altman and company give it a good go here, but unfortunately their portrait is skin deep at very best. The title characters are the artist and his brother, Theo, two Dutchman in France in the late nineteenth century—Theo is in the business of art, working at a Paris gallery, while Vincent, when we meet him, is already ensconced in Arles, working through his issues, and not very successfully. In fact, the most striking thing about the film happens in its first five minutes: it begins with footage from Christie's, with one of Van Gogh's pictures of sunflowers selling for millions of pounds; the audio continues as the picture cuts to a hundred years earlier, with the two brothers having it out, squabbling about, among other things, money. It's Altman as social observer, what he's always done best. What it lacks is what you find, for instance, in Vincent's extraordinarily beautiful published letters, brimming with his passion for his art, his love for his brother, his battles with mental illness.

Instead, we get some of classic Altman stuff, providing insights into discrete communities with their own odd but consistent and widely understood sets of rules. The serenade between Theo and prospective clients is fascinating, especially given that the merchandise that Van Gogh is asked to move as a dealer is just the sort of stuffy academic painting that his brother Vincent and his immediate predecessors knocked out of the box with the ascendance of Impressionism. Unfortunately there are a number of problems, though, such as the fact that Altman's cast, especially in supporting roles, isn't first rate. The director is famous for welcoming contributions from his collaborators, but too often it's not clear what so many of these people here bring to the party. Also, the two leads are played by English actors, who make no attempts to mask their accents—not that they should, but other actors playing Dutch characters have Dutch accents, and the French have accents from their country, giving Vincent and Theo a particularly alien, Masterpiece Theater sort of quality.

Tim Roth plays Vincent, and leans a bit too heavy on externalities—he seems to love the bad teeth with which he's been outfitted, and spends a lot of time putting an unlit pipe in and out of his mouth. You never really get a sense of where this Vincent's greatness comes from; instead he just kind of yells a lot, and we're waiting, with a good bit of nausea, for his inevitable self-mutilation and eventual suicide. Paul Rhys is a wisp of an actor as Theo, and his particular demons are made even less explicit than his brother's. In the absence of a strong sense of fraternity, the crucial relationship in Vincent's life becomes his friendship with Paul Gauguin, who is Vincent's rival for talent and Theo's for self-promotion.

Altman doesn't get too explicit, but we do get to see some of the iconic paintings being created—a peasant model sits for what's to become The Potato Eaters, for instance, and Jean-Pierre Cassel does a nice turn as Dr. Gachet, the seeming quack who looked after Vincent in his last days and sat for his portrait. The later part of the film is especially interesting for its portrait of contemporary medical practices—as every age does, it passes itself off as modern, but doesn't seem that far from the days of leeches and bloodletting to purify the humors. Ultimately, though, this doesn't reveal enough about the Van Goghs, and doesn't have the many pleasures that we associate with a typical Robert Altman movie. It's more of a curiosity, a worthy supplement to a museum exhibition or something to round out a syllabus than a successful film in its own right. 

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: There are frequent scratches on the source print, marring what's actually a pretty good transfer, rich in color, careful about matching its palette to that of Vincent's paintings.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The mix seems like a sophisticated one, but it's not really done justice on this mono track. Altman's frequently bustling scenes of groups and cliques and coteries sound awfully muddled a lot of the time.

Audio Transfer Grade: C


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Film as Fine Art (24m:07s) features lots of clips, along with Robert Altman on the project's genesis (it started as a four-hour BBC mini-series), his son and production designer Stephen discussing his work on the picture (especially with an army of art students who reproduced Van Gogh's canvasses), and on-set interview footage with Roth and Rhys.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

There's no substitute for seeing Vincent van Gogh's paintings, and there are certainly better places to go for historical and personal insight and context into the artist, his work, his family and his time. But there are some compelling social elements to the movie, which is unlikely to spark a new passion for post-Impressionism, but will have some revealing and knowing moments for those who already have at least a modest amount of knowledge about Van Gogh and his paintings.


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