Obscured Canvas
By Courtney Duckworth

At Eternity's Gate
Dir. Julian Schnabel, U.S., CBS Films

“All things that are, are light,” wrote theologian John Scotus Eriugena—words that often illuminated the art of Stan Brakhage, who hand-painted film frame by frame to create such works as The Dante Quartet (1987). Similarly, when asked what he paints by a fellow asylum inmate in southern France in Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate, a wiry Vincent van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) intones: “Sunlight.” Painting light, van Gogh sought to capture all things. He glutted his canvases with thick strokes that accrued into churning whorls of fervid color. Even now, his paintings summon the surrounding light to their radiant surfaces.

Perhaps van Gogh’s fascination with light explains generations of filmmakers’ fascination with the artist—cinema is light, at its most elemental. Cinema is also space, and the insistent, corporeal presence of his paintings beckons the camera to intervene. To film an Impressionist artist dabbing subtle lights and shadows onto a smooth plane is far less romantic than to lens van Gogh’s greasy azure gobs, hoisted on a palette knife. Each biopic has toyed with his paintings’ bodily pull. In the opening credits of Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956), names are composed of coiling blue swirls. Possibly the most beguiling film about the painter, Maurice Pialat’s coy Van Gogh (1991), which skirts art-making for much of its runtime, fills an early frame with a heap of cerulean. Last year, Loving Vincent was all about technique: actors performed in front of a green screen and then, in a form of rotoscoping, were painted over in serpentine strokes to mimic van Gogh’s style. An electrifying process scene in At Eternity’s Gate has the handheld camera drift to the right edge of a still-wet canvas, where prodigal mounds of glittering oils protrude as if ranges on a topographic map.

Schnabel applies his brush to the material—a material to which he seems cosmically tethered. Famous foremost as an artist, Schnabel appeared in the pages of Artforum in a 1981 review of his characteristic “plate paintings” by Rene Ricard. With “The Radiant Child,” in Artforum the same year, Ricard feathered the cap of another bright-but-brief recusant, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Eight years after the ex-tagger’s heroin overdose at age 27, Schnabel debuted as a feature filmmaker with Basquiat (1996), a portrait that cannot match its wriggly subject but nonetheless limns him with genuine compassion. In voiceover, Ricard (played by Michael Wincott) speaks the first words we hear as he scribbles his vexed lines: “No one wants to be part of a generation that ignores another van Gogh.” At Eternity’s Gate completes the circle.

But Schnabel was already a respected artist at 28, the same age when van Gogh avowed himself to art after dabbling in madness and ministering, and a year older than Basquiat would ever live. Schnabel manifests in Basquiat as the established painter Albert Milo (Gary Oldman). Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright) rankles at his comparative fluency in the stodgy white art world—how Milo breezes in and insists gallerist Mary Boone (Parker Posey) have two towering canvases rehung, without a thought to the laborers who will hang them (such as Willem Dafoe, portraying a nameless artist who finds easier admittance to her gallery as its electrician). Schnabel resists casting himself as some jilted savior of Basquiat; Milo is far too insulated. Survivor’s guilt, instead, seems the stubborn through-line of his filmography (Before Night Falls, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), as if Schnabel is uneasy with his success. Ricard again: “Julian showed great concern about the artists he knew.” All artists know, though few act on it, that in another life they could be the ones to falter, flame out, or remain anonymous.

Myths and misinformation have congealed van Gogh into a looming paragon of the “tortured artist”: poor, mad, and obscure. Metrocolor melodrama Lust for Life saturates his story with operatic highs and lows as lead Kirk Douglas writhes and contorts his voice into a frantic whine. When our romantic hero slices his ear under an oil lamp, the vivid red blood stands out with a theatrical force. Each film since has reacted by eliding more of the tragic tissue surrounding his life in order to bare the flesh-and-blood human beneath. Pialat excises stagy plotting to place his film’s inscrutable but rakish painter (Jacques Dutronc) in a credibly coarse 19th century, where he idles in brothels, quivers with vice, and beds his doctor’s admiring young daughter, Marguerite Gachet, whom he paints at the piano in absinthe-green. Stumbling back to his ramshackle inn with a gunshot wound of unclear provenance, this van Gogh is upstaged when the proprietress crushes her foot in the cellar door. Time does not stop even for the death of an artist.

At Eternity’s Gate is more tactile and spare. Schnabel seeks his elusive subject, by proxy, through the lucid textures around him: monumental stalks of dried sunflowers, wheat blue in the dusk, pink petals unfurling from a vase, the canary-yellow walls of his Arles home. The film opens in a dim Paris restaurant, where van Gogh squabbles with the owner, who insists Vincent remove his unnerving work after all the others in his proposed “group show” flake. Cut to the redhead lugging his askew canvases in a wheelbarrow down a cobblestone-paved hill—one of countless wry jabs at the unglamorous hustles of an unknown and the blithe criticisms of laymen. But across a shadowy café, van Gogh glimpses Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac, who seems to have wandered in from another film), self-serious and charismatic, with a flash of dashing crimson at his throat, quarreling with a confederation of artists he deems nearer to a bureaucracy than a creative community. Recognizing each other in body and spirit, the two men stroll out into the gray streets, and the luck-starved van Gogh confesses his hunger for “a new light.” Cocksure, Gauguin spurs him to the Provençal town of Arles, where the film lingers longest, and where van Gogh finishes 75 paintings in 80 furious days.

Schnabel disturbs van Gogh’s elated dream of creation by weaving his torments into the film as if they are nightmares. Here van Gogh is an apostle of art-making who swings helplessly between a yen for unpeopled nature and a need for companionship—from the Arles townspeople who tease and harass him and the servant woman who rebuffs his tremulous advances to his tender brother and bankroller, Theo (Rupert Friend, caring and solicitous), and the prickly Gauguin, whose unceremonious exit from the town animates Vincent into violence. Like a true addict, he has an inability—or refusal—to come down from the act of painting, which isolates him. “I want to be out of control,” stammers van Gogh as he and Gauguin amble through an echoing church. “I need to be in a fever state.” Dafoe embodies the possessed painter with a kind of tortured sincerity. He isn’t an enigmatic layabout, as in Pialat’s film, but an earnest disciple of his craft struggling to stifle his overflow of feelings. Van Gogh is clever and sensible—almost too much so, tidying a complex figure—proselytizing his passion for art with a pleading whimper to anyone who will listen. Dafoe is older than van Gogh was when he died, at 37, but his aquiline nose, creased features, and luminous, beatific eyes lend him a saintlike bearing. Indeed, Dafoe’s performance seems a reprisal of his turn as Jesus in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, a comparison that rings truest in a scene where the painter is catechized by a priest (Mads Mikkelsen), who must decide whether van Gogh is mentally fit enough to quit the Saint-Rémy asylum. Van Gogh makes the comparison between himself and Jesus with a canny smile, and the actors sit on a stone bench in the same configuration as did Dafoe and David Bowie, as Pontius Pilate, in that film’s interrogation scene.

Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme lifts the viewer to this celestial terrain, too—its joys and terrors. His handheld camera sways and pirouettes as though a brush painting a canvas, while van Gogh wanders undulating wheat fields, scales stony outcrops for a loftier view, baptizes his haggard face in dirt, or whittles waving reeds into pens. Sometimes the filmmakers trust too much that we will share van Gogh’s ecstasy, but there is something supernatural in watching Dafoe trod the same ground that van Gogh did in Arles and Auvers, where he died. Some choices seem scattershot: the camera dips woozily on its side to rest on the floor or careens through wide-open spaces in a hodgepodge evocation of the more controlled instincts of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki in the similarly supernal Tree of Life.But early scenes of madness reveal how fully the film occupies van Gogh’s perspective. In the first sequence, to which Schnabel later returns, van Gogh flees from his Saint-Rémy “recuperation” and chances across a woman shepherding her sheep. Desiring her portrait, he coaxes her to lie supine on a dirt road but handles her with increasing force until she screams. Her perspective is naturalistic, but his point-of-view shots are bisected by a blurred bottom frame, from a split diopter. These blurs recur throughout the film as his emotions heighten to a fever pitch. Sickly yellow hues predominate when van Gogh is trapped for the second time in the asylum. There, the film entirely inhabits his POV as he marches with his fellow, wailing patients around the walled-in grounds; when an orderly calls his name, the tinkling piano score silences and the camera veers to the sound’s source, as if the music had been echoing inside his mind all along. Viewers discover only in retrospect how much they have adopted the painter’s ears and eyes.

Schnabel’s film is dedicated to the act of painting. Unlacing his boots in his wind-battered Arles garret, van Gogh finds form in their slumping shape with flurrying brush strokes of brown, orange, and yellow. Dafoe paints the images we see in the film, credited to Schnabel and artist Edith Baudrand. Previous biopics have too-faithfully replicated van Gogh’s masterpieces, bedecking billiard halls in red and gaslight-green (The Night Café) or walls in “pale violet” (Bedroom in Arles). Schnabel instead leverages his craft to invoke another artist’s practice. Schnabel has revealed some of this insight, invisible to the undiscerning look: van Gogh’s three glorious blues—including Prussian—and red lines rimming his subjects’ eyes. He ditches cinematic copies of the paintings: when van Gogh paints the eccentric, bug-eyed Dr. Gachet (Mathieu Amalric), the canvas covers half of the screen to refuse us a mere replica of his 1890 portrait. Another scene has Vincent snap his easel into place to capture the reluctant Madame Ginoux (Emmanuelle Seigner), who prefers to pose for Gauguin, and the rustle of his hurried pigments sparks one of the pair’s frequent, barbed tête-à-têtes. Van Gogh protests: “Paintings have to be done in one clear gesture.” Dafoe’s fluid gestures are a sensory rush, though Schnabel struggles sometimes to capture the charismatic, gestural performance he has inspired.

In a letter from the last year of his life, 1890, van Gogh wrote: “I should like to do portraits which will appear as revelations to people in a hundred years’ time.” Readers may parse these words as further proof that the painter was “ahead of his time”—a modernist born before the modern era. But there’s something much simpler at work here: a man toiling every day at his craft, hoping that his medium will survive another century. Schnabel may share this hope. For the first time a director has tried to help cinemagoers share van Gogh’s gaze. To truly achieve this, however, a filmmaker may have to invent a new kind of cinema.