“Why make another movie about van Gogh?” Julian Schnabel is addressing a packed theater at LACMA, in which audiences have just watched his new film, an impressionistic (pardon the pun) variation on the standard biopic, starring Willem Dafoe as the painter. “We all think we know everything there is to know about him. But this is not a movie about van Gogh,” he says. “It's a movie about being van Gogh.” Schnabel goes on to describe his intention to show rather than tell what life was like for the painter, and also how it was for those who spent time with him. Spoiler alert: It wasn't easy. And neither is this movie.
As he is the director and a co-writer of At Eternity's Gate, Schnabel's point of view is almost more operational in the plot and texture of the film than was van Gogh's. Asked repeatedly about choices in storyline and dialogue that run counter to the prevailing, if apocryphal, wisdom about Vincent's life and death, Schnabel's statement on the story reads in part, “This movie is an accumulation of scenes based on van Gogh's letters, common agreement about events in his life that parade as facts, hearsay, and scenes that are just plain invented. This is not a forensic biography about the painter. It is about what it is to be an artist.”
Schnabel makes it clear that he personally identifies with van Gogh, as expressed in some elements of the plot and especially certain things said between van Gogh and his fellow painter and Arles roommate, Paul Gauguin (played by Oscar Isaac). An empathy for the existential turmoil of a great artist clearly animated the script in the places where van Gogh expresses himself to the brother, doctor and clergy who attend to his mental and physical deterioration. At one point van Gogh says something like, “Maybe I'm painting for people who haven't been born yet. Jesus didn't get discovered until 30 or 40 years after his death.” Not only was this a rare laugh for the audience but Schnabel himself called it out as a line he “got great pleasure out of writing.”
The film also has a huge amount of silence, long sequences in which there is no dialogue but plenty of aural dynamics in the form of the interpretive, emotional avant-garde musical score and the rushing wind of the countryside. They shot on location in Arles, in the south of France, and its weather is not always balmy. It rained, and the wind blew, rattling windows on the well-aged buildings where they shot — including the still-active asylum where van Gogh was held. Fun fact: The extras in those scenes are actually patients there. But given the preponderance of time van Gogh spent wandering the countryside, for the filmmakers, the light was as important as the screenplay, and “the wind was a protagonist.” But with limited dialogue and a lead character who spends most of his time alone, a great deal of the film is completely quiet. Like all the most unsettling features of the production, this is intentional.
“The silences are like being alone with him,” Schnabel explains. “I wanted a more prismatic sense of who he really was, not a one-note persona. The best way was to show a series of relationships,” one at a time. But of course this meant inventing dialogue, as almost none of those events were reported or recorded in writing. “The impulse to make it more human,” Schnabel says, “led me to the could-have-happened.”
For example, he chooses the accidental murder scenario as the theory of van Gogh's death, not suicide. “He bought art supplies the day before he died, which were never found, so. … It could be true. I mean, in Lust for Life (which I still love) the crows in the field that he supposedly paints then kills himself, well, that wasn't even his last painting! It's a great ending for a movie, though. It still holds up.”
The silences and music interludes are coupled with extreme close-ups, long-lasting tight shots, eerie and interpretive sound editing, and camerawork that is both split-focus and hand-held, meaning that much of the bottom half of the image is out of focus most of the time, and the camera tracks every gestural movement the actors make. The idea with the focal shifting and the organic untethered visual flow of hand-held cinematography (held by both the D.P. and the actors at times) was, again, to physically and optically manifest, to “show rather than tell,” the physiological texture of van Gogh's eyes and mind. All these things contribute to a vaguely unpleasant combination of vertigo and claustrophobia, but as the filmmakers intended, you think about what going crazy might look like, what being conscious of it might feel like, and the ways in which being an artist might make it all survivable.
In fact, Dafoe learned to paint in preparation for his role as van Gogh. It was important to Schnabel as a director and perhaps more so to Dafoe as an actor that he “hold the brush in a believable way, move the paint around in a true way.” Of course, Schnabel helped out. “He told me,” Schnabel says, “that he learned how to see differently. I told him to see the light first, then the object. The pair of old boots in that early scene? He did that all himself, on camera, while he was also acting.” The audience wows approvingly, because that was a really good painting, and also because a huge chunk of the film involves watching Vincent (Dafoe) at work on the canvas. Impressive.
In a sense, all of the things that make the film both remarkable and cognitively awkward — the silences, the jaunty camerawork, the off-axis music, the lingering tracking shots of ramshackle landscapes, the retro-prescient pronouncements and the intimate access to shaky mental health — are intended not only as raw empathy for van Gogh but also relate to Schnabel's own aesthetic as a painter. He loves grand gestures, aching earth tones, florid and exuberant outbursts, compressions of space and expansions of existential quandaries, and, above all, the mythology of the “great artist” as a tortured soul.
“In the film, van Gogh says, 'I am my paintings,'?” says Schnabel. “I am this film. Everything I had to say, I say in that movie. I might never make another one.”