Julian Schnabel on Vincent Van Gogh at Eternity’s Gate

To make an authentic film, the director shot in a mental institution where Van Gogh once stayed and had Willem Dafoe learn to paint.

Photo courtesy of CBS Films

An art film by an artist about an artist, At Eternity’s Gate is Julian Schnabel’s meditation on Vincent Van Gogh during his last days in France.

Brooklyn-born Schnabel is not only a famed art-world figure known for large, mixed canvases. He’s also clearly obsessed with making movies about real-life artistic expression over adversity. Among other films, he directed Basquiat (1996), about ’80s drug-using superstar artist Jean-Michel Basquiat; Before Night Falls (2000), about oppressed gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas; and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), the story of a French magazine editor who became paralyzed everywhere but his left eyelid.

Van Gogh’s challenges? His lack of commercial success, his madness, that ear thing, and his demise, all of which are given interesting takes in Schnabel’s heady film. Shown as the New York Film Festival’s closing-night attraction, At Eternity’s Gate has trippy scenes of Van Gogh walking through fields and soaking up nature, interspersed with confrontations that explore his dark side, his generous side, and his nagging angst. In both French and English, backed by a simple piano score, the film has Van Gogh announcing, “I feel God is nature and nature is beauty” as he examines landscapes and finds eternity there. Willem Dafoe, styled to look like the artist, captures his moods with a wonderful performance that makes Van Gogh human and mortal, not the untouchable legend he became after he was gone.

I didn’t want to make a movie about Van Gogh. I think everyone thinks they know everything about him. It seemed to be an impossibility.

After a press screening at the festival, Schnabel and his cohorts came onstage, the director announcing his defiant unpretentiousness by wearing a sweatshirt, striped track pants, and sneaks and looking down a lot. He was asked why he made a film about Van Gogh. Long pause. “I have no idea,” he finally replied. Then he added, “I didn’t want to make a movie about Van Gogh. I think everyone thinks they know everything about him. It seemed to be an impossibility.” But then he and cowriter Jean-Claude Carrière were at a Musée d’Orsay exhibition of Van Gogh’s work, and the latter had an epiphany.

At the discussion, Carrière related, “The museum was closed. Julian had gotten it open just for us two. We were facing a Van Gogh self-portrait, very close. I never thought I’d feel a totally new emotion in front of a painting. It was as if Van Gogh were alive and listening to us, as Julian told me things like, ‘You should notice he used three blues. And all around the eye is a thin red line that you don’t see from a certain distance.’ As we walked away, I felt Van Gogh was following us with his eyes.”

“I had no idea he was feeling any of those things until two months ago,” said Schnabel, laughing.

The director said the landscape is one of the film’s protagonists, and he wanted to mix silent scenes situated there with moments of human interaction, which come off as if Van Gogh’s portraits are talking. “You are Van Gogh,” he said, noting that the other talking heads look directly into the camera for precisely that effect.

Photo by Lily Gavin/Courtesy of CBS Films

He approached the movie, he said, as if each painting were a vignette, leading to a cumulative feeling, “so it was not a biography or an ordinary narrative.”

Dafoe, wearing a snazzy suit, said he enjoyed the loose structure and freedom of filming, whereby they would often finish shooting by midday, then he could go off and walk through the countryside and/or paint, which he learned to do for the film and got totally hooked on. But it wasn’t all pastoral. Rupert Friend (who plays Vincent’s loving brother Theo) talked about shooting in a mental institution that Van Gogh had stayed in. He said Schnabel encouraged the staff and patients to be part of the filming, “and it became a more thrilling experience to know where your brother was suffering and all these people with their own torments were, too.”

“Being brought back to the institution in that carriage has a Jacob’s ladder effect,” interjected Schnabel. “I do think Vincent was very scared of that. The fear of going mad is part of this movie.”

But as a piece of filmmaking, At Eternity’s Gate is quite sane—a contemporary artist’s view of a master painter escaping demons via craftsmanship and creativity. Carrière noted that painting is about stillness—art doesn’t move—whereas a movie is constantly in motion. Kudos to this team for fusing the two aesthetics in a way that makes souvenir postcards spring to life.

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