“Why do we need another movie about Van Gogh?” filmmaker Julian Schnabel asks me. Handy, because it was the question I was just about to ask him. There’ve been dozens of films about Vincent van Gogh, from the Hollywood-ised Lust for Life (1934) to the visually beautiful but unsatisfyingly thin murder mysteryLoving Vincent (2017). But Schnabel still made his own impassioned, highly personal take on the artist, titled At Eternity’s Gate, starring Willem Dafoe as the artist.
“Everyone thinks they know everything about him,” Schnabel says. “But this movie isn’t about him. It’s about being him.”
It’s an important distinction. At Eternity’s Gate isn’t a slavish, true-to-life recreation of Van Gogh’s existence. And Schnabel believes he’s qualified to make this film in a way that few other directors are. The award-winning filmmaker (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Before Night Falls), considers himself a painter first, director second. Looking at Schnabel’s artworks, with their scrawled urgency and vivid colour, I can see the lineage of Van Gogh. These are qualities Schnabel carries into his filmmaking, too.
When I speak to Schnabel on the phone he’s in Mexico, 125 kilometres north of Acapulco. He’s looking out at the Pacific Ocean, and our conversation is occasionally interrupted by his five-year-old. After the huge collaborative effort of filmmaking, he’s back to concentrating on painting, a far more immediate and personal art form.
“It’s the idea of ‘making something’ that the movie addresses,” he says. “Anyone who’s ever tried to make anything can relate to this film.”
Schnabel is in good form to be making films about artists. His first film, Basquiat was a fictionalised portrait of his friend – and legendary neo-expressionist street artist – Jean-Michel Basquiat, another idiosyncratic, ahead-of-his-time painter who died too young. Even then, Schnabel was pre-emptive about venerating the ‘tortured artist’. In the opening moments of Basquiat, Schnabel name-checks Van Gogh:
“Everyone wants to get on the Van Gogh boat,” says Basquiat in the film (played by Jeffrey Wright). “The idea of the unrecognised genius slaving away is a deliciously foolish one.”
Schnabel has hopped aboard the Van Gogh boat too, but he feels he belongs there.
“When Jean-Michel died, a guy came and interviewed me about him,” Schnabel tells me. “I tried to help him make a movie, but ultimately he was a tourist. So I had to make the film myself.”
“Yes,” he says. It’s his term for non-painters making films about painters, which is almost all film directors. ”A lot of tourists have made a lot of movies about Van Gogh.” But Schnabel is no tourist, and because of that, this film is more about feeling than accuracy. Biographical detail isn’t a priority.
“It’s a work of fiction. There are things that he said and did that spark true to me. I try to find something in that that’s more true than literal facts.”
Set during the last few years of the Van Gogh’s life, At Eternity’s Gate follows the struggling artist, shunned by his peers, across the same picturesque landscapes Van Gogh himself walked, and the same Saint-Rémy psychiatric hospital where he spent some of his latter days. Willem Dafoe captures the passion and the brilliance – and also the isolation and social ineptitude – of Van Gogh, funneling these aspects into a singular artistic voice.
Schnabel tells the story with an intensity rarely seen in the conservative field of historical biopics. We’re subjected to uncomfortable close-ups and disorientating experimental editing. When we see through Van Gogh’s eyes, we see the discomfort in the faces of others. “Look at me,” he says to a young woman on a backroad. “Please. I want to make a sketch of you.” She looks back at him, plainly terrified.
“He was a pain in the neck,” says Schnabel. “It was easier to deal with his art than with him. But he expressed the inexpressible. He wanted people to see the world how he saw it, because the way he saw it was more real.” But how he saw it was also frightening, confusing and cruel.
In the film, Schnabel’s Van Gogh says that all the paintings he likes were painted fast, referring to Frans Hals and Goya. “When you get up close in the Louvre you can see they that they look fragmentary, abstract,” says Schnabel. “That was probably too cacophonic for people. You could see the way it was put together, which was off-putting.”
He could be talking about his film, too. Schnabel’s submission to the canon of films about Van Gogh is more about painting than it is about the painter.
“I think his work has transgressed death,” says Schnabel. “Through him there’s an opportunity to make a case for making art. Or for the creation or making of anything. So looking through his eyes, one could say a lot of things about just being alive.”
At Eternity’s Gate is in cinemas now. Watch the trailer.