THE LIFE OF Vincent van Gogh is such an over-brushed canvas, any serious movie about him must take bold, original strokes or be lost forever in the background.

Robert Altman's "Vincent & Theo," a story not only about Vincent van Gogh (Tim Roth) but his brother and lifelong supporter Theo (Paul Rhys), takes those kind of strokes. This European-financed production may not discover anything strikingly new about the Dutch artist's life, but it renders him in a tender and vivid light.

"Vincent" visits most of the familiar places in both brothers' lives, such as the Hague, Antwerp, Paris and Arles. It also covers the well-known highlights, such as Vincent's cutting of his earlobe (not the whole ear), his run-ins with mentor-cousin Anton Mauve, his unsuccessful relationship with roommate Paul Gauguin (a wonderful Wladimir Yordanoff), and his ultimate demise. For Theo's part, the movie covers his troubled (and syphilitic) quest for a wife (eventually, Johanna Ter Steege), his utter devotion to his brother and his frustrated attempts to sell vital art to the public.

Best known for seminal works in the 1970s, such as "M*A*S*H" and "Nashville," Altman reasserts his erstwhile eminence wonderfully. Rather than tour-bus from milestone to milestone, Altman (with British screenwriter Julian Mitchell) pauses at these points and lets the clock run. He lets his subjects breathe, twitch, sketch, rage, say nothing; in short, behave. Screen time often runs elegantly into the red. The scenes gain a certain, open-ended presence, the movie equivalent of impressionist paintings.

When van Gogh draws Sien Hoornik (Jip Wijngaarden), a cigar-chewing, pregnant whore with a sullen pride of her own, Altman just lets them sit. The artist draws feverishly; she sits, a cigar wedged truculently in her mouth. It's raining outside. She gets up for a break, ambles over to a chamber pot and relieves herself. He keeps sketching.

"You can draw me when I model," she retorts. "Not when I'm myself."

Rhys's nervous, highly strung Theo, given to stammerings and tremulous shyness, may be too over the top for some. But there's a certain tragicomic sweetness to his performance.

As Vincent, Tim Roth is, without a doubt, the best thing about this movie. The British actor who played the hoodlum lieutenant in Peter Greenaway's "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover," presents a soft-souled, black-toothed, endearingly tormented artist, willing to take his work as far as it can go. Everything he does has an idiosyncratic preciousness. He's a puppy of a genius, a precious boy, a child of art.

There are many moments that make for an unforgettable performance: Roth's flickering eyes, darting from canvas to subject and back again; the tragic -- and mysterious -- intensity as he forces himself to drink the water he's been mixing his paints with; the passionate kiss he gives Gauguin when he knows the painter intends to leave him; and the innocent reverence in his eyes as he declares, simply, "I like stars."

VINCENT & THEO (PG-13) -- Cineplex Odeon MacArthur and Dupont Circle.