Julian Schnabel was a painter long before he was an Oscar-nominated director. You too have been painting for over twenty years and were determined to work with Schnabel. You found the perfect project in At Eternity’s Gate.
When we think of Vincent Van Gogh, often the first thing that we know of him is that he cut off his right ear. The second thing we know is that his painting of sunflowers was, for a time, the most expensive painting ever sold. Both of these facts are true, and have defined Van Gogh, for better or for worse, as the poster boy for the “tortured genius” myth, a romanticized yet reductive description of a person who suffers nobly for their art. We look at the end results and smugly agree that this suffering was a small price to pay for bringing such beauty into the world.
But to strip the myth from the man, to understand his motivations, recognize his limitations, and attempt to show us what he saw is something perhaps only another painter could do. Or, as in the case with At Eternity’s Gate, two painters.
Schnabel told you, “you are Van Gogh”, which gave you the freedom to eschew the accepted rules of cinematography in order to effectively tell Vincent’s story from his perspective. In the final years of his life, Vincent lived in near-squalor in the south of France. He spent his days traversing the landscape in search of inspiration, his easel and supplies strapped to his back. Your approach to filming found you geared up in a similar fashion. Your camera strapped to you, your inspiration, Willem Dafoe as he ambled across dormant sunflower fields, or lay on the ground looking up at the sky with child-like awe. You didn’t concern yourself with continuity or sightlines. We see what Vincent sees, and how you saw him, and therefore believe we know how he sees himself. Your translation is natural and unaffected, yet epic in scope.
Your canvas is the always brilliant Dafoe, who portrays Vincent with a wounded innocence. You show us Vincent’s face in close-up, every crease and furrow telling the tale of a man unsure of everything but his vision, who paints because it is all he knows. You show us his ecstasy when he sees a sunset, his insecurity when he must interact socially, his joy in receiving his friend Paul Gaugin at his yellow room, the terror when he fears he may be cursed to always suffer in madness. We see his hands clasping a brush, his eyes darting from face to unfriendly face in the town that petitions to have him removed, his demeanor ever hopeful when he imagines his love of beauty bringing him closer to God. Yes, the face you get to focus on belongs to Willem Dafoe, in a role so expertly performed we believe instantly and emphatically that he is Van Gogh. But your physical and metaphorical proximity to him gives his character dimensions we never knew he had.
For a palette, you had the same landscape and gorgeous natural light Vincent painted in Arles, France, outstanding actors like Oscar Isaac, Rupert Friend, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Seigneur, a robust script co-written by Schnabel and largely based on Vincent’s substantive correspondence with his beloved brother Theo, and a clever device Schnabel suggested – a lens you used to give the frame a bi-focal effect, where at times the bottom quarter of the screen was purposely out of focus to produce differing depths of field – which gives the audience a sense of Vincent’s mental lapses, and the feeling that he lives in two different worlds at once. And of course, at the center of this is Dafoe, himself a master of his own art form.
In one of the most effective and memorable scenes, Vincent wonders to a priest, played by Mikkelson, if perhaps the people who will truly appreciate his art have yet to be been born. Often we don’t recognize genius until it is too late, but with At Eternity’s Gate, we are given a masterpiece for the ages.