From Canvas to Silver Screen

Julian Schnabel and Willem Dafoe bring the final years of Vincent van Gogh to life.

Painting’s appeal is ethereal; the very best works move you, yet it’s difficult to pin down why. You can try analyzing techniques, perspective and optical theories – but for every rule there seem to be myriad exceptions, if not entire schools devoted to defying conventional beauty.  It’s no wonder we try to glean deeper understanding by examining the biographies of great artists – stories  often as compelling as their work, that offer a way to grasp the intangible.

The troubled life of Vincent van Gogh, who suffered in obscurity only to posthumously become the world’s most recognizable painter, offers plenty of material.  And film makers have responded: There’s Vincente Minelli’s delightful 1956 Lust for Life starring Kirk Douglas, Martin Scorcese’s cameo as the artist in Akira Kurosawa’s 1990 anthology Dreams, and more recently, Loving Vincent, an animated feature that used 65,000 oil paintings to bring Van Gogh’s art to life.

The latest attempt is by celebrated artist and director Julian Schnabel, whose film At Eternity’s Gate stars Willem Dafoe as Van Gogh in his final years. A noted painter himself, Schnabel eschews the standard biopic format, opting for a chronological sequence of loose scenes accompanied by a haunting piano that start and stop abruptly, further emphasizing their episodic nature.

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

The biographical milestones are all here, from Van Gogh’s tender yet dependent relationship to his brother Theo to his obsession with friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin (Rupert Friend) – though many of the more lurid parts are merely alluded to, like his absinthe abuse and fondness for brothels.  Loving attention is given to the stellar supporting cast, with many of the painter’s subjects entering the narrative only to have their portraits hanging in his studio later.

But it’s Dafoe that dominates, bringing the artist’s frustrations, desires and loneliness to the fore. Receiving an Oscar nomination for his portrayal, his Van Gogh yearns to belong, but doesn’t know how; he wants the world to see what he does, but society largely shuns him, put off by his brusque intensity. Equal parts vulnerable and volatile, he’s a manic time bomb.  Even when mired in depression and melancholia, his eyes glint, ready to explode – or burst into tears.

Method and Madness

Frequently shot with a shaky hand camera, the film often shifts to first person, occasionally out of focus, showing the world through the eyes of the artist. The effect is amplified by Schnabel’s masterful use of lighting, portraying southern France as an explosion of color second only to the Van Gogh’s own work.

But At Eternity’s Gate isn’t so much an artist’s story as it is a vehicle for Schnabel’s reflections on painting, with Van Gogh and Gauguin frequently making grand statements on the nature of art. Some of them are profound, others merely pretty. At it’s best, though, the film shows rather than tells. In one scene, Van Gogh is alone in a field just before dawn, sitting on a portable stool with his hands together. Looking nervous like a man on a first date, he starts pacing up and down, eventually lying down and sprinkling dirt on his face. Then the light shifts as the sun comes out. He sits up and beams, then sets up his easel and gets to work.

Schnabel might not have created a great biography, but rather something even more intriguing: between the stark color contrasts and somber, understated depictions of obsession, isolation and driven clarity of vision, it’s an effective recreation of the artistic process.

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Binu Starnegg
Manila born, Brooklyn bred and a longtime resident of Vienna, Binu Starnegg is currently managing editor for Metropole, where he completes myriad tasks with style and aplomb. Photo: Visual Hub

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