In Altman's eyes, Van Gogh painted with his own blood. His film itself is a revelation: of the saint-like brother, of the cut-off ear. In Tim Roth, Van Gogh is that cypher of the great artist, living his present as a sacrifice for a future he would never see.
Theodore, the brother, had faith in Vincent when nobody did. Consumed by a diversity of personal and domestic problems, the most important thing in his existence was the legacy of a mad genius, that breathing stereotype of the lunatic jumping to your bed and threatening to kill you and/or himself if things don't go his way -- just ask Gauguin. Suicide is painless...
While, always according to Altman, the martyr who supported the painter down to his last penny was no saint in conventional terms, Van Gogh's infamous ear wasn't entirely separated from the red home of his nightmares, either. Just two years later, Roth would be a major player in a different, more completist, bloody film reminiscent of the tormented artist's auditive wounds, though not self-inflicted in that case --Mr. Blonde was a non-creative evil sociopath.
Screenplay and production design are, beside the acting, what provide some answers to the questions posed by Altman, in one of his most subtly mysterious works. The master filmmaker had ever be prone to a certain impressionistic style, and here he has the ideal subject. For instance, his groundbreaking overlapping dialogue -- although seldom used in this essentially dual portrait, told mostly in parallel sequences-- serves very well the confusion and desperation that cloud Theo's life.
Apart from that legendary technique, the anti-melodic music soundtrack is a sort of anachronistic and utterly intimate reflection of the individual suffering inside Vincent. Body and soul, heart and mind, Roth becomes the centre of the frame as Altman, take after take, seems to be draining the actor. His ever- homeless-looking raggedy countenance constantly reminds the audience of his own saint-like, martyr mission. Art was his religion, and Roth, small yet dangerous, makes the most of that lonely crusade. For his part, the Welsh Paul Rhys is first-rate as well, as the lesser figure with a less interesting biography, both of which Altman imbues with a fascination pertaining to the unsung heroes. An effect the director gets through because is based on a sense of reality that goes beyond the surface of commonplaces.
Vincent & Theo tells a story that would be unbelievably ridiculous if it wasn't for the enormous tragedy it actually contains. Arguably the most picturesque Altman film, for evident reasons, it is a multilayered, contrasted and rich account of a brotherly love that changed art as we know it. The stuff of myth recedes and discovers the not so simple truth of life and death. Altman's oblique approach creates a tapestry of colourful suggestions in the same league with another Post-Impressionist tale, John Huston's Moulin Rouge. Its Gauguin doesn't compare to Anthony Quinn's in Lust for Life, but this 1990 version attacks all the senses in the best possible ways, and Roth is everything.