At Eternity’s Gate
Directed by Julian Schnabel
It isn’t as if the life of Vincent Van Gogh hasn’t been adapted for the big screen before. Lust for Life was Vincente Minnelli’s lustily melodramatic take (based on Irving Stone’s novel), with Kirk Douglas holding little back as he strained to suggest Vincent’s intensity; Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo focused on the relationship between the Van Gogh brothers and their destructively parallel course; Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh — easily the most unsentimental of the group — presents a harsh, uningratiating view of a harsh, uningratiating artist, avoiding the traditional highlights (including that ear thing) and focusing on more quotidian activities — Pialat doesn’t even make much effort to show the paintings, or approximate Vincent’s unmistakable style onscreen.
So what does Julian Schnabel bring to the party?
An episode early in the film suggests the filmmaker’s approach: Vincent (Willem Dafoe), coming out of a café, confesses to his new-met friend Paul Gaugin (Oscar Isaac): “I’d like to find new light. For paintings we haven’t yet seen.” Gaugin’s reply: “Go south, Vincent.”
Cut to a room plunged in shadow. Baleful blue light streams though a window; against the mistral’s low steady roar the panes bang against their frame and skeletal twigs tap faint greeting from outside. Vincent enters, settles down, pulls the laces off his shoes, the shoes off his feet; the camera rotates so that leg and boot stretch horizontally across the screen, then rotates again so tossed-off boot remains horizontal. Vincent puts canvas to easel and starts painting his boot; Dafoe in an interview nicely sums up the artist’s process: “Watching it as an audience, for a long time, [the canvas] looks bad — the colors look wrong, it’s not a good likeness, but, then, with some color choices, and some marks, it comes into focus.” Painter turned filmmaker Schnabel, collaborating with cinematographer turned painter Benoit Delhomme, works to create some marks that when viewed in sequence comes into focus (usually) — it’s a cliché to say the filmmaker paints with his camera but Schnabel and Delhomme seem to be trying to literally do just that.
I say “usually” because the director seems determined to push his experimentation far, not all of it successful. The narrative barely seems to exist (if you want a coherent outline of the subject’s life Minnelli’s version seems best). Schnabel seems to want to exult in texture rather than story: the painter’s heavy blue coat (early on we have a protracted shot of the coat being slowly unbuttoned), the thick smears of paint, the ravishing countrysides. Most of all, Schnabel seems to exult in Dafoe as Vincent, treating his face and outstretched ropy arms like one of the artist’s famous landscapes, lingering over every furrow and crag, every pebbled surface, every spiderweb of creases. Dafoe delivers intensity certainly, but also a rich tenderness — his voice at times raspingly desperate, at times dreamily softspoken; when Theo (Rupert Friend) visits him in a hospital after a breakdown, Vincent asks for a hug and Theo climbs into bed with his brother, a startling moment that at the same time feels unapologetically natural, thanks to the two actors.
Does Schnabel go too far? The film goes into flashback to depict causes, goes into flashforward to reveal consequences; snatches of dialogue sometimes echo, suggesting that Vincent’s head is a chamber of pained memories bouncing back and forth till he has to lash out, either at others or himself, to relieve himself. Occasionally there’s a blackout — a literal rendering of what Vincent himself describes as a loss of memory, self-censorship you might say as he deletes moments of his life too agonizing to recall. Some critics have commented — not always complimentarily — at all the yellow in the film, suggesting that painter suffered from xanthopsia; a valid complaint, though if you just relax and lean back the yellow motif can be striking as you see it everywhere: the rows of jeweled hexagons radiating from the sky, the lemony tinge to Arles’ spring buds, the latticed straw in the artist’s hat, even the light wavy tawniness of Dafoe’s hair. Schnabel is saying yellow isn’t just a condition (I submit) but a condition of life: Vincent sought a new light, and found it in the sundrenched soil of Southern France.
Then there’s the blur. Schnabel went to Delhomme and showed him a pair of bifocals; Delhomme proceeded to experiment with split diopters to approximate what the director wanted. Filmmakers have used the device before — famously in Citizen Kane, frequently in 1970s films; Brian De Palma is a big fan. The effect — of two images one distant, one up close, both in focus — is often hidden, usually with a line or a shadow across the screen concealing the blurry boundary. Schnabel uses the device without excuse or explanation, and the effect can be jarring: what’s the out-of-focus lower half of the screen supposed to represent — an approximation of the distortion found in Impressionist art? Delhomme was told that it looked like tears and likes that interpretation; I like the simplicity. Hokey? Perhaps, but I submit that the split screen also suggests the divided nature of Vincent’s view of the world, half harsh reality, half — something else, something that we can’t properly appreciate onscreen and only snaps into focus for all eternity in his paintings.
Like it or not there’s something admirable about Schnabel’s stubborn refusal to repeat himself — to tell Vincent’s story the way he did Jean-Michel Basquiat’s (a somewhat more conventional biopic and his first feature) or Reynaldo Arenas (a more lyrical interpretation complete with balloon ride a la Tarkvosky’s Andrei Rublev) or Jean-Dominique Bauby’s (told mostly out of his left eye). The last film I’d almost call a stunt, only that’s how Bauby saw the world and how Schanbel depicts Bauby’s point of view in the most direct (and difficult) manner possible.
Vincent Van Gogh is arguably a challenge of a different order, a master in a medium Schnabel himself practices in and knows well; it would follow that Schnabel pours everything he knows and a lot he previously didn’t into the film. He put himself out there, innovations, mistakes, everything. Not just one of the best but one of the most courageous films of last year.