The history of art is littered with brilliant men who died in poverty, lived in filth and were ignored during their lifetime. Van Gogh is the best-known example.

Robert Altman's film opens with the Christie's sale of Sunflowers, when bidding exceeded £20million. The irony is so transparent, it's hardly worth mentioning.

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And yet over and over, as the familiar agonies unfold, the cadence of the auctioneer's voice echoes in the mind. It is not the money, but the aura of reverence surrounding this man, Vincent, a Dutch depressive, so burnt out by failure that he shot himself in a cornfield one hot summer afternoon.

Julien Mitchell's screenplay never exaggerates the poetry of squalour. It is precise, witty, honest and faithful, avoiding genius-in-embryo sentimentality for the story of a single-minded, obstinate, inarticulate painter, whose vision of truth was twisted by repression, passion and self-hatred.

Theo, the brother in Paris, who worked for a gallery, selling decorative paintings to rich clients, appears as much an outsider, with his shy, scholarly approach to commerce. His love for Vincent is tainted by a sense of betrayal at the compromises and humiliations necessary in his line of business.

"I can't force people to buy what they don't like," he exclaims.

"Your generosity is killing me," Vincent replies, with sarcasm.

Comparing the early sketches of peasant women to the romantic landscapes of the fashionable artists of the day, it is possible to speculate that, without the family allowance and Theo's support, Vincent might have died younger, remembered, if at all, as naif, an aspiring modernist whose destructive nature overshadowed his ability.

The film shows the brothers's tribulations through ambition to acceptance, through rejection to despair. Theo marries a cold, practical woman and has a child. Vincent, isolated in Arles, lets madness loose, like a ferret at a burrow, to feed off boredom, as fury pierces the silence within.

The acting is so committed that it sparks the imagination and makes two-and-a-half hours feel inadequate. Tim Roth plays Vincent as a man possessed, not by destiny but with raw, brutal creativity. "I can live without God. I can't live without painting." And he means it.

Paul Rhys, as Theo, gives a performance of sustained excellence, managing to convey both strength of character and weakness of purpose. His irritation and idealistic romanticism clash constantly. As Vincent pushes further from the futility of social contact, Theo agonises over the meaning of loyalty and responsibility.

The film is not a tribute to the most famous artist in the world, but an insight into the process of creative energy.

Reviewed on: 20 Oct 2001
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The tempestuous relationship between Vincent Van Gogh and his art dealer brother.
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Director: Robert Altman

Writer: Julien Mitchell

Starring: Tim Roth, Paul Rhys, Johanna Ter Steege, Wladimir Yordanoff, Jip Wijngaarden, Jean-Pierre Cassel

Year: 1990

Runtime: 134 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: France/UK


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