With the maniacal gleam in his eye, his hagged, lean and hungry look, it’s amazing that it’s taken so long for Willem Dafoe to be cast as Vincent Van Gogh. He’s even got a Dutch name, although he was born in Wisconsin.
Dafoe is 63 years old, while Van Gogh died at the age of 37, but the face that stares out of the artist’s self-portraits was old before its time. Van Gogh put himself through innumerable physical and psychological hardships. He wore out his friends with his unrelenting intensity, and suffered a severe mental breakdown. It’s all there in Dafoe’s boney, wrinkled visage.
Ever since Vincente Minelli’s Lust for Life (1956), in which Kirk Douglas played the lead role, there has been a succession of Van Gogh movies. I wasn’t convinced we needed another one, and even less convinced that Julian Schnabel was the man for the job. Having come to prominence as a painter of enormous neo-expressionist canvases covered in broken plates, Schnabel reinvented himself as a film director in 1996 with Basquiat, an embarrassing bio pic about the young black painter who took the New York art world by storm and cemented his legend by dying at 27, the favoured age for rock star deaths.
Basquiat was one of those movies that could make viewers squirm with embarrassment, not least at the sight of David Bowie playing Andy Warhol. It had all the defects of Schnabel’s paintings, being crudely constructed, pretentious and superficial. The late Robert Hughes’s penned several memorable put-downs of Schnabel’s work. His indignation was especially fired by an interview Schnabel gave to the New York Times, in which he listed his “peers” as Giotto, Duccio and Van Gogh.
As a filmmaker, Schnabel’s most celebrated effort has been The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, for which he won the Best Director award at Cannes in 2007. Based on the autobiography of the paralysed Jean-Dominique Bauby, the subject was well suited to the interiorised, highly subjective style Schnabel has cultivated.
And so it was fingers crossed for At Eternity’s Gate – the title coming from a painting of an old man that Van Gogh completed in the St. Remy asylum in 1890, based on a drawing and a lithograph he’d made eight years earlier. There seems to be no relationship with the actual work, the phrase being chosen for its portentousness.
With Luis Buñuel’s long-term collaborator, Jean-Claude Carriere as co-scriptwriter it was possible that Schnabel might find something meaningful in Van Gogh’s tortured subjectivity. The danger, or so I suspected, was that it would give us yet another melodrama about a misunderstood genius.
The truth is slightly different. Schnabel strives to take us into the painter’s skull so we may see the world in the same ecstatic manner. This translates into many scenes in which we stare at Van Gogh’s shoes as they plough through the tufty grass. There are extended conversations with Oscar Isaacs, playing Gauguin, and with Mads Mikkelsen who plays a priest in St. Remy. Most of the artist’s other contacts are fleeting and fragmentary.
The film runs for only 111 minutes but it feels much longer. At times it feels interminable, as we are given ample opportunity to suck in the spectacle of nature and share in Vincent’s excitement. Call it insensitivity on my part, but I soon found this tiresome. I began to wonder if Schnabel was pioneering a daring new theory that Van Gogh actually bored himself to death.
There are at least two points of controversy in this version of the artist’s life. Schnabel accepts the idea, raised by 2011 biographers, Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh, that Vincent did not commit suicide but was shot by some local boys fooling around with a gun. He also accepts the authenticity of the ‘lost sketchbook’ that was published with great fanfare in 2016, but instantly denounced as a fake.
At the time I interviewed the sketchbook’s editor, Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, who was completely convinced it was real. She may be heartened by Schnabel’s support but there are very few Van Gogh experts that would agree. Smith and Naifeh’s theory about Van Gogh has been greeted with equal scorn.
The response, as is so often the case, is: “Hey, it’s only a movie, and when did movies ever worry about what is true and what is false?” The difference in this case may be that the director has made an executive decision that, as an artist himself, he intuitively understands his subject better than those dreary curators at the Van Gogh Museum who have spent their entire careers researching the painter’s life. He has even claimed the film is “more true than literal fact” – closing in on that tipping point where creative licence gives way to creative arrogance.
As for Van Gogh, even after working our way through his paintings and his voluminous correspondence, he remains an enigma. On one hand his compassion for humankind was boundless, as was his capacity for suffering. This is balanced by many stories that reveal him to be boorish and aggressive in promulgating his beliefs about art. Neither was he saint-like in all his dealings with other people. We see a little of the boorish Van Gogh in this movie, a lot of the holy fool, and a large dash of misunderstood genius. Mix all these colours on the cinematic palette and it produces a surprisingly dull impression.
At Eternity’s Gate
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Written by Jean-Claude Carriere, Juian Schnabel, Louise Kugelberg
Starring Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Niels Arestrup, Anne Consigny, Amira Casar, Vincent Perez
USA/Switzerland/Ireland/UK/France, rated PG, 111 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 16 February, 2019