International Writers Magazine: DVD Reviews
& 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 cliché 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!), its 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 cliché, 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 Roths film
career is puzzling since, of the six or so films Ive 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 Vincents stupidly killed himself. Altman was clearly going
for an impressionistic 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 didnt care either
way, by that juncture in the film.
Its 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
Vincents decision to become an artist with a London
auctioning of Van Goghs 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 Theos 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 clichés 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 latters
envy of the formers 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 Vincents 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 wifes opening
up of the letters.
Altmans 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 Spielbergs Saving Private Ryan or Schindlers
List, but it seems even worse because Spielbergs 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 Altmans ideas on life and art. Vincents
graffiti that I AM THE HOLY SPIRIT. I AM WHOLE IN SPIRIT.
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 Altmans worst film, and a terrible
film, period, but hopefully Ive earned enough trust with my readership
that I can tell them to simply skip this one and watch Lust For Life
instead. Its a better film, and more intellectually honest, to
boot. Ok, exhale!
© Dan Schneider Jan 2007
Cosmoetica: The Best In Poetica
Cinemension: Film's Extra Dimension
all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibiltiy
- no liability accepted by hackwriters.com or affiliates.