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‘Vincent & Theo’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 16, 1990

Under the hot breath of the mistral, a field of sunflowers like faceless lions dance, a thousand golden Salomes to drive the painter beyond passion to a storied madness. A glorious dazzle, they entice poor Vincent as a lover never would.

Robert Altman, so erratic in recent years, brings an artist's eye and suffering spirit to his masterly portrait of "Vincent & Theo." This lovely if deliberate film marks Altman's return to a more straightforward, but by no means expected, style. A biography that plays like fiction, it tells the story of the van Gogh brothers, stroked and brushed and globbed onto the canvas of the screen. Altman gives us art as ordered chaos, and inspiration as a merciless muse.

Directing from Julian Mitchell's lucid and moving screenplay, Altman focuses on the symbiosis between the two brothers as well as the eternal struggle between the artist and the audience, which by nature is attracted to the status quo. It opens with an auction at Christie's, but the clamor of million-pound bids for "Sunflowers" gives way to the slovenly artist's studio. Set largely in Paris and Provence, this carefully researched look at mental illness and 19th-century mores is also a triumph for the two young British stage actors, Tim Roth and Paul Rhys, who play the artist and his art dealer brother.

Roth's Vincent is wired like a lamp cord with a short, alternately buzzing with energy and lying quiet with desperation. A man in some terrible pain, whether it is epilepsy or some more exotic disorder, he struggles with the savagery of his own senses. His hair a ruffled ocher, his teeth rotten and stained from sucking on his brushes, Vincent writhes like the cypresses of his ravishing canvases. Theo, the quiet syphilitic, twitches and quivers like a hamster nervous in a cage.

The duet between Roth's Vincent and Rhys's Theo, the more controlled but no less anxious younger brother, is founded on blood, paint and obsession. By supporting Vincent, Theo vicariously participates in his brother's art and suffering. As compulsively tidy as Vincent is gross, he marries a great thick Dutch beauty, Jo Bonger (Johanna Ter Steege), but his tie with his brother supersedes even this.

Vincent can only paint and rage. He even paints the prostitutes before he and Paul Gauguin (Wladimir Yordanoff) take their pleasure in the Provencal demimonde. He dips his bread in paint and paints the face of the sleeping Gauguin, who awakes hung over from a night of sex and absinthe. The resulting argument between the two sends Vincent into a fit and he cuts off the lobe of an ear. The Provencal period ends and he enters an asylum.

Theo, now a father of one, finds a new patron for Vincent in Dr. Paul Gachet (Jean-Pierre Cassel), a hypocrite who keeps the art he has bought from the great impressionists in a vault. Gachet's daughter (Bernadette Giraud) and Vincent, grown childlike and introverted, are attracted to each other but Gachet discourages the relationship. The artist wanders off, his paints on his back, to startle crows in the fields of Auvers-sur-oise.

As seen by Altman and his director of photography, Jean Lepine, the crows become the visual brethren of the mourners at first Vincent's and then Theo's funeral. The sky disappears in a terrible blue glare and the grain shivers with the unseen menace of angry old agrarian gods. Vincent shoots himself, a sacrifice to his broken brain and the public taste of the times. And at Christie's the ultimate travesty, bidding on a ruined man's agony. Going, going, gone.

"Vincent & Theo" is more than art appreciation, it is a treasure in its own right, unframed and arcing in the projector's light.

"Vincent & Theo" is rated PG-13 for some nudity.

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