Venice: Julian Schnabel Says Van Gogh Film 'At Eternity's Gate' Is "Impossible" to Explain

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

Willem Dafoe stars as the troubled painter in a movie that Schnabel hopes is experienced more as a "work of art" than as a film.

Oscar-nominated director Julian Schnabel returns to the subject he knows best, painting, in his sixth feature film, At Eternity’s Gate, which premieres in competition in Venice on Monday. After his debut film took on the life of Basquiat, the New York painter and filmmaker is now tackling another highly celebrated and influential yet troubled artist.

Willem Dafoe inhabits the life of Dutch post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh, yet this time the film is not a biopic, but an exploratory look into van Gogh’s life, his mind and his work, meant to be experienced as one would experience an exhibition of the painter’s own works.  

“First of all, everybody thinks they know everything about Vincent van Gogh, so it seems absolutely unnecessary and absurd to make a movie about him,” Schnabel said at a press conference for the film in Venice. He said the premise for the film came to him and writer Jean-Claude Carriere after they experienced an exhibition of van Gogh’s works at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.

“At the end of the exhibition, you walk out and have the cumulative effect of what happened to you. That was the structure that we decided to take on this. They were vignettes that we started to create and conversations that we had about what could have happened,” said the director.

“I know more than most people probably because I’ve been a painter since I was a child and I’ve read all his letters,” said Schnabel. “If you ask me to explain the movie, I would say it’s impossible. If you give a reason for it, you’re already lying.”

“What we tried to do was make an equivalent somehow to a feeling that’s possible that you could get when you’re observing a work of art,” added Schnabel.

In addition to wanting moviegoers to experience van Gogh’s art through the people in his lives and the landscapes around him, Schnabel wanted the audience to get a sense of the painter’s mind. “One of the things that the movie addresses in some way was this notion of fearing that you’re going mad. There’s a kind of Jacob’s Ladder effect of black stoppages in the movie where you kind of come out of it and go back in,” said Schnabel. “When you’re sitting in the audience, that seemed to make you feel like you were in his shoes.”

Speaking of van Gogh’s state of mind, Dafoe said, “He was absolutely inspiring and absolutely lucid in what he talked about. I related to it very much.”

“I think the difficulties came when he had these special visions. And he couldn’t quite reconcile that with how to share it with people, with more prosaic things about career, and social things, sexual things. That was the struggle,” said Dafoe.

“But I think he even recognized, rather than the tortured genius artist, I think he even spoke quite vividly about the value about the difficulties in your life as a teacher,” he continued. “He talked about how even sickness can heal us. I think the main thing that inspired me was he was beyond dualistic thinking.”

“He was also beyond criticism,” added Schnabel.

The film takes many liberties with the mysteries in van Gogh’s life, including how his life ended.

“If he killed himself or if he didn’t is irrelevant to me,” said Schnabel, adding that it was a pleasure to create their own version of what they believed happened, but admitting that as there were no witnesses or evidence at the time, no one will really know indefinitely what happened.

“I think, all history is a lie. If you watch the movie Rashomon, you’ve got five different stories of the same event,” said Schnabel. “I would not get hung up on that.”

At Eternity’s Gate will also play the New York Film Festival before being released by CBS Films in the U.S. on Nov. 16.