This film interpretation follows the last nine years of the life of Vincent van Gogh, the famous Dutch painter, and his loyal brother, Theo. It is set in Paris and southern France during the late 1800s.
Vincent is a moody, emotionally disturbed artist with a very unique painting style. He lives in virtual poverty, while his brother Theo, an art-dealer in Paris, tries to sell his paintings. Hoping to improve his career, Vincent moves to Paris, where he is befriended by an older artist who tells him not to make art his religion. Vincent says that art is better than Christianity.
For a while, Vincent lives with a woman and her child. She models for him completely nude in a painting class. The film, in fact, contains some very explicit female nudity and love-making scenes.
Vincent later moves to a village in Southern France to study and paint. His life, though, is filled with disappointment and despondency, and, at one point, in a shocking and sickening scene, he attempts suicide by cutting off his own ear.
Since director Robert Altman has created a cinematic version of Vincent’s art, one has to believe that Altman is attempting to do what van Gogh did on canvas — express artistic passion through color and exaggeration. Thus, Altman attempts to create an expressionistic portrait of the many pains, passions and perplexities surrounding the brothers van Gogh.
Lacking, however, are explanations to fully flesh out this complex man. The greatest void lies in Vincent’s unexplained torment in his relationship to the Church and his desire to see Christ everywhere. In one of his many verbal battles with Theo, Vincent says, “God is everywhere except the Church and the family.”
Although Vincent van Gogh had strong religious feelings and even attended seminary, here he is portrayed as being critical of Christianity. It would seem, then, that director Altman plays upon Vincent’s accusations of hypocrisy against the Church instead of Vincent’s motives and painful thirst for truth in a sinful world. This notion is borne out by another line of dialogue from an art dealer who says, “God made a lot of mistakes. The world is a bad painting. He should destroy it.”
Too bad that Mr. Altman doesn’t realize that God doesn’t destroys lives: He transforms them, refines them, adds new color, new scenery, and new illumination. Apparently though, Altman has conjured up a Vincent van Gogh concealed so deeply within the recesses of his own mind that he is beyond reach, consuming huge amounts of alcohol, paint and turpentine. Thus, the premise of the film is fulfilled: men of vision are misunderstood and will die.
Even Vincent’s brother Theo, who contracted syphilis and died, never understood Vincent’s revolutionary paintings and was unable to sell any of them. How ironic that one of Vincent’s paintings recently sold for $3 million.
In addition to some poorly recorded sequences which often make it difficult to hear much of the dialogue, the film is full of references and asides that only first-year art students might recognize. Perhaps, libraries and bookstores will soon be visited by viewers who want answers to questions ignored by Altman such as: What did Vincent van Gogh really have to say about Jesus Christ? Did he curse the Lord, or cry out to Him? One can only hope the latter.
Accusations against Christ and the Church, 5 obscenities and 1 profanity, full female nudity, self-mutilation and suicide, sexual immorality, and excessive use of alcohol