by Clive Fisher
VINCENT Van Gough is inescapable. One is far more likely to discover his ecstatic and turbulent visions in the dentist's waiting-room or the student's bedsit than the work of, say. Picasso, Matisse or Cezanne (and forget the Old Masters: print shops have little time for Rubens or Raphael).
The reason is not, of course, because he is a greater painter than these three, or that he had truer visions, or that he was more original or more influential, or that he consorted more with beauty. The reason for his popular appeal lies partly in his strident individuality: he is always and instantly recognisable; and partly because the misfortunes heaped upon him, and implicit in his writhing and tormented flowers and faces, make him the twentieth century's archetype of tragic genius.
That is why a pop star (Don Maclean), recorded a song (Vincent) about him (Degas hasn't yet been similarly, if dubiously, honoured), why auctions of his paintings make headlines around the world and make us wonder where it will all end, and why for the second time in two years, with Vincent and Theo, (Everyman, `15'), I find myself reviewing a film about him.
Why, I wonder, did Robert Altman, one of the contemporary cinema's most important directors, want to dramatise the traumatically symbiotic relationship of these two brothers? He may have intended nothing more than homage, which is understandable, if hardly the sort of motive which excites backers.
He may have hoped to help explain the genesis of the long succession of masterpieces to a larger public. He may have reflected that the story of Van Gogh's life, the missionary who turned to self-expression, syphilis, drink, madness and self-mutilation, if not fun for all the family, was still thoughtprovoking stuff.
The film begins with Vincent's early painting in the Borinage. The opening scene, a row between the two brothers, in which the aspiring art dealer, Theo, wonders why Vincent must live like a beggar among miners and not be more financially responsible, is crosscut with footage of the auction in which the Sunflowers made £22m.
That is the least interesting fact about Van Gogh's career, and also the most heavy-handed way of stressing the contrast between ascetic artist and the investment value of his art. Alter this gauche opening, things never really click up. Tim Roth looks the part, though his mumbling delivery of the script, in a nasal whine suggestive of North London and drama school, grates. Again, the story is familiar: the Paris interlude; the fraught period in Arles with Gauguin (who examines the quality of Vincent's yellow ochre — useful for sunflowers — and admonishes, "Zees eez bourgeois. We use only ze the cheapest pents"); tantrums in fields of sunflowers, brothels, drink and syphilis; the amputation of the ear; the onset of insanity.
The nasal whine becomes less noticeable towards the end of the film as Vincent becomes more and more artistic and taciturn, through about half an hour before the end he does manage, memorably, "I like stars".
What it boils down to is a cliche: all that is relevant, lucid and communicable about Vincent Van Gogh he himself said. His paintings speak for themselves. His correspondence to his brother defined his views in as far as they could be defined. Paul Cox's film of two years ago took them as the narrative and realised that anything else would be superfluous. Vincent and Theo leaves the impression, like Hamlet seen mimed, that everything of import has been omitted.