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Theme Tuesday - Vincent Van Gogh - Vincent & Theo (1990)

In honor of his birthday on March 30th, I will be devoting March to exploring portrayals of the artist Vincent Van Gogh on film.


Vincent and Theo seems to be almost a direct rebuke to the shiny, lush Lust for Life, which was meant more to be a compilation of the artist’s greatest hits (the ear! Gauguin! Crows!) rather than any deep exploration of the artist’s personal demons and how his behavior affected those around him. The series (I watched the four-hour television version) starts off with documentary footage of an auction for his famous Sunflowers painting. The clip ends but the sound of the auctioneer calling out steadily higher and higher prices as we go back to the past and see Vincent and his brother Theo arguing over, of course, money.

The film and its script seem to reflect this somewhat calloused, decidedly non-idealistic, view of Van Gogh and his art. Though the film definitely focuses more on Vincent and his well-known travails, it spends almost as much time on Theo. It focuses on his struggles to not only take care of his brother, but also his work at a gallery for the most bourgeois art “connoisseurs” imaginable. This is where Robert Altman’s signature style of overlapping dialogue and slowly roaming camera is especially effective, as if the art gallery is just another business place and there is no pretension of high-minded ideals about true beauty.

When it does focus on Van Gogh and his more famous moments, Altman and screenwriter and playwright Julian Mitchell work actively to undercut the mythos that has surrounded them. The ear-cutting scene, which came after the end of a fight and chase after Gauguin in Lust for LIfe, is a personal and private act without a lot of context. We don’t hear Tim Roth declaim about voices in his head. Even when he goes to find his paramour in a bar, he does it so casually that it takes a while for the patrons to realize that he’s bleeding out of his head.

All the films seem to agree that “Wheatfield with Crows” was a pivotal point in Van Gogh’s life and career. So far, I liked how Altman chose to stage it the best. In this film, Van Gogh paints “Crows” shortly before his suicide. At first, it seems that the film is simply remarking on the painting without incident. We see him complete the painting without much fanfare, and it cuts to the next scene. However, we later see Van Gogh in the same wheatfield except this time with a blank canvas. We cut to a wide shot of the field and then we hear the fatal gunshot. He goes to the same bar that he went to when he cut his ear. This time no one notices him clutching his side and bleeding. In fact, the only way that anyone knows something is wrong is when the owner of the bar accidentally stains his sleeve on Van Gogh’s wound. Even then, it takes his wife to accidentally place her hand on the stain to realize that it’s not her husband’s blood and that something is amiss. It’s a grim joke on the obscurity that Van Gogh died in that even his death almost passes without incident.

The death goes with this film’s approach to simply document Van Gogh’s life and not make any effort to glorify his life or call him an artistic genius. If we didn’t know the outcome, we would think that we were watching a sad, disturbed and complex man die without accomplishing much. I appreciate that the film commented on how fickle fame and renown are and that it often comes at the expense of any complex understanding of the artist, and so far, this attitude makes it the best film about Van Gogh so far.

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