Idiosyncratic examinations of uniquely driven creative individuals have dominated the film work of Julian Schnabel, starting with his New York art-world contemporary in Basquiat, continuing with Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls, and with French editor and writer Jean-Dominique Bauby in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. But perhaps nowhere has Schnabel’s own experience as a painter and his insight into the artistic process been poured as obsessively into his subject as in At Eternity’s Gate, an unbridled portrait of the painful but productive final years in the life of Vincent van Gogh, a role inhabited with the acrid lucidity of madness by Willem Dafoe.
The enduring public fascination with the subject alone, along with Dafoe’s possessed, full-contact performance, should draw a receptive niche audience when CBS Films opens the feature in November, following its North American premiere on closing night of the New York Film Festival.
This period in the Post-Impressionist painter’s life has been depicted onscreen before, notably in Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo, and the new film contains no startling revelations. But Schnabel draws on letters, documented fact, speculation and pure invention to put forward in fragmented scenes his highly personal take on the intense dialogue van Gogh conducted between the world he painted and his canvas.
This is in many ways an abrasive, wildly uneven film — raw and deliberately unvarnished in style, shot by Benoit Delhomme with a nervous handheld camera and lots of wide-angle lenses that mirror the darting restlessness and the uneasy perspective of a troubled mind. Even the score by Tatiana Lisovskaya favors dissonance and distortion, its plinking notes hammered out on what sounds like a beat-up old barroom piano in need of tuning. And the lurch from a few token establishing lines of French into English for the majority of the film is extremely clumsy. Better to have ignored the language factor altogether.
But on many other levels At Eternity’s Gate is effective. The images that flood the widescreen frame accumulate layer upon layer in a way apposite for the subject. Van Gogh’s friend and fellow artist Paul Gaugin (Oscar Isaac) criticizes him at one point for painting in haste and then overpainting, creating an impasto so thick it resembles clay: “More like sculpture than painting.” That tactile density, judged as clumsy and unrefined by most observers in van Gogh’s lifetime, finds a visual and tonal correlation in Schnabel’s approach that invests this distinctive biographical drama with an invigorating, coarse vitality.
Written by frequent Bunuel collaborator Jean Claude Carriere with Schnabel and Louise Kugelberg (the latter also his co-editor), the film opens in Paris in the late 1880s, with van Gogh an outsider among the clubby Artistes Independants. His art-dealer brother Theo (Rupert Friend) is unable to sell his works, which invite little interest in an overcrowded café hanging that shows them to poor advantage. Only Gaugin, who has no time for the precious Paris aesthetes, has mild words of appreciation for one or two of Vincent’s paintings.
“Go south, Vincent,” Gaugin tells him when van Gogh expresses his yearning to leave behind gray skies and fog for sunlight and air. Virtually penniless, he relocates to Arles, where after a harsh winter he takes a lease on the now-famous Yellow House and begins losing himself in the natural world around him. Delhomme’s camera picks up every contrasting texture of earth, grass, leaves, branches and tree roots, soft pasture land and harsh rocky terrain. One of the more arresting images is a field of dead sunflowers. The use of sound here also is sharp, particularly the natural elements like wind.
“When facing a landscape I see nothing but eternity,” says Vincent in one of the black-screen voiceovers that punctuate the film. “Am I the only one to see it?”
The hostility of most of the locals toward the Dutch painter and his odd behavior is evident in a scene where a schoolteacher (Anne Consigny) openly mocks his work in front of her young students, triggering a violent reaction. Wandering drunk through the streets soon after, Vincent gets beat up and is hospitalized, prompting the concerned Theo to visit his brother. The deep fondness between the siblings makes this a lovely scene in a film rigorously averse to sentiment. The painter confesses the fear that his mind is giving way to encroaching darkness and anxiety. Unable to remain there himself, Theo agrees to buy one painting a month from Gaugin to give him the financial means to spend time in Arles with Vincent.
That interlude is one of the film’s most interesting stretches as the two men paint side by side in the Provencale countryside, despite techniques as ill-matched as their incompatible temperaments. Isaac brings an amusing arrogance to Gaugin, which plays nicely against Dafoe’s darker moods. The companionship clearly nourishes Vincent. When Paul announces he’s returning to Paris, where his work has gained greater recognition, van Gogh falls apart, Gaugin’s words looping in his head.
The violent act of severing his own ear is depicted as a direct result of the argument with Gaugin, to be delivered to him in a bloody piece of paper bearing the words: “Remember me.” Schnabel and his co-writers from that point on take what is commonly known about van Gogh’s traumatized final years and filter it through the painter’s own confused vision, including the mysterious circumstances of his death. Some events are omitted, while the time between others is collapsed.
A young doctor (Vladimir Consigny) convinces Vincent to enter a voluntary asylum where he’s placed in a straitjacket, seemingly around the same point when an influential Paris art critic writes an outlier encomium hailing his work, stating that it appeals more directly to the senses than that of any painter before him.
Such praise is in stark contrast to the perplexed view of a priest (Mads Mikkelsen, in a terrific single scene) connected to the hospital, who confesses frankly that he finds no beauty or skill in the vision Vincent feels compelled to share. Van Gogh’s religious background surfaces as he likens his conversation with the priest, who will determine his fitness to leave the hospital, to the decisive encounters of Christ with Pontius Pilate. He also ventures that perhaps God made him a painter for people not yet born.
The film isn’t entirely successful in dramatizing the continuing decline of van Gogh as he is forced to leave Arles and goes to stay briefly in Auvers-sur-Oise with an eccentric doctor played by Mathieu Amalric, one of a handful of returning actors from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. As a drama about the rapid unraveling of a great man, tragically misunderstood and underappreciated in his lifetime, it is oddly unmoving on an emotional level. What’s most frustrating is that the extraordinary creative explosion of van Gogh’s last years, with some 70 paintings that went on to be considered among the greatest in history, is relegated to a footnote rather than fully depicted.
There’s pathos, however, in the image of van Gogh’s body laid out in a coffin while mourners examine the paintings displayed around it, still mostly without enthusiasm. Even in its more distancing passages, this is a biographical drama that draws the audience deep into the tormented mind of its subject. That’s due in large part to the febrile intensity Dafoe brings to the central role. With his craggy features and piercing blue eyes peering out from under a battered straw hat, he fully evokes the van Gogh we know so intimately from self-portraits. The dangerous urgency of Dafoe’s performance reveals an artistic genius whose crippling mental illness seems to feed rather than impede his capacity to create ahead-of-their-time works of stunning originality and sensitivity.
Production companies: Rahway Road, Iconoclast
Distributor: CBS Films
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Anne Consigny, Amira Casar, Niels Arestrup, Vladimir Consigny, Vincent Perez, Alexis Michalik, Stella Schnabel, Lolita Chammah, Didier Jarre
Director: Julian Schnabel
Screenwriters: Jean Claude Carriere, Julian Schnabel, Louise Kugelberg
Producer: Jon Kilik
Executive producers: Karl Spoerri, Marc Schmidheiny, Nik Bower, Deepak Nayar, Charles-Marie Anthonioz, Mourad Belkeddar, Jean Duhamel, Nicolas Lhermitte, Thorsten Schumacher, Claire Taylor, Fernando Sulichin, Maximilien Arvelaiz
Director of photography: Benoit Delhomme
Production designer: Stephane Cressend
Costume designer: Karen Muller-Serreau
Music: Tatiana Lisovskaya
Editors: Louise Kugelberg, Julian Schnabel
Casting: Gerard Moulevrier
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)