Camerimage: How 'At Eternity's Gate' Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme Was Inspired by Van Gogh

At Eternity's Gate Still 1 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

French cinematographer Benoit Delhomme has been a painter for 20 years, so it’s easy to understand why he so passionately wanted to photograph Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate, which traces the final, difficult years of influential post-impressionist Vincent van Gogh’s life. 

The film, in which Willem Dafoe gives an emotional portrayal of the troubled painter, opened the Camerimage cinematography festival in Bydgoszcz, Poland on Saturday. At the fest, Delhomme (who has shot such films as The Theory of Everything) said he believes lensers can find inspiration from the painter's work. “Van Gogh spend his life trying to find new ways to show the world to people and renew his vision,” he says. “He’s constantly on a search to do something better. That what I’ve been doing for the last 25 years. On every film, I’m trying to find something new to say.”

At Eternity’s Gate was lensed on location in Paris and Arles, the French village where van Gogh painted late in life and created some of his most famous works. With landscapes of the wind moving through the fields coupled with Delhomme's select use of yellow filters, there are moments in the pic where it looks as if a van Gogh painting has come to life.

Naturally, Delhomme's work took inspiration from the painter, "but when I was filming, I never sought to make a film looking like a painting," he says. "I wanted life to come to the film. In Arles, I tried to capture that color of that part of France and that light.”

The movie offers a contrast between large scenic landscapes and close-ups of faces, mostly shot handheld with natural light.

Delhomme also aimed to use camera movement to convey the painter’s state of mind, particularly when he was confused or distraught. “We need to experience life like van Gogh did, so very early on I realized I needed a camera that was very mobile," he explains. "I didn’t want the camera on my shoulder, because you can’t walk as freely. I wanted to have the camera in my hands so I could see the world around me, so I could plan my next move. I wanted to be like Willem Dafoe’s shadow.”

To be mobile, Delhomme, who also operated the camera, used a lightweight Red Helium with Kowa lenses, stripped of unneeded accessories. “I wanted to be able to carry the camera for five hours, in the field," says the cinematographer. "I wanted to be able to run with it. I worked with natural light as much as I could, to the extreme; I was [opening] the iris myself. When I was shooting inside, I would light through the window, as van Gogh would do.”

Delhomme adds that this approach allowed him the ability to work in 360 degrees around Dafoe: “I wanted to show his soul. When an actor is so much in every shot, I feel like I’m kind of doing a portrait of this actor.”

Delhomme used close-ups for some key scenes, including one during which van Gogh’s brother, Theo (Rupert Friend), visits the painter at a hospital. “The face becomes like a landscape,” the lenser says of close-ups. “They can’t hide anything. If you have a great actor, they understand the value of what you are going to do. I was physically very close to them on these takes.”

The production also took advantage of the infrared capabilities of the Red camera. “It’s a scene where van Gogh has a conflict with Paul Gauguin [Oscar Isaac] about how to paint. But what is a right way to paint? They talk about color, and boom, the screen becomes black and white,” says Delhomme. The black and white also seems to emphasize the texture of the painting, while in the script, the texture of van Gogh's paintings are likened to sculpture.

One unusual element to the photography was born when, during prep, Schnabel asked Delhomme to try putting the director’s bifocal sunglasses in front of the camera as if it were a filter. This resulted in Delhomme tracking down split diopters, essentially creating the appearance of looking through tinted bifocals, which was used in select moments in the movie.

While this was the cinematographer’s first film with Schnabel, Delhomme says that he actually met the director years ago when he was asked to shoot 2007's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which he turned down because he had another job commitment. (Academy Award winner Janusz Kaminski later earned an Oscar nomination for lensing the pic.) This time, Delhomme was determined not to let the opportunity pass him by.