Artist-director Julian Schnabel defends his fresh portrait of Vincent van Gogh

by Helen Barlow / 21 December, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Julian Schnabel At eternity's gate

Julian Schnabel. Photo/Getty Images

Julian Schnabel explains the ideas behind his revisionist take on the life and death of van Gogh.

Julian Schnabel’s sixth movie, At Eternity’s Gate, might be yet another film about Vincent van Gogh but it’s as much about the American painter turned director himself. When Willem Dafoe’s van Gogh was filmed creating his masterpieces, it was often Schnabel playing artistic stunt double.

“When he’s looking at the rocks and he’s drawing, my hand is in his shirt and we’re wearing the same shirt,” Schnabel says at the Marrakech International Film Festival.

The 67 year-old says he tried to marry art with cinema more than he had done in any of his previous movies which began with 1996 biopic Basquiat and have included 2007’s acclaimed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

“I was talking to Guillermo del Toro,” Schnabel says of the Shape of Water Oscar winner “and we agreed we only make one film in our lives, just different panels. With my first film Basquiat I didn't try to invent the wheel. I knew Jean-Michel and tried to tell the story as I was a witness to a lot of those events. After making The Diving Bell and the Butterfly I realised I like to tell a story in the first person.”

In order to play Van Gogh Schnabel taught Dafoe, his friend of 30 years, how to paint. Dafoe is now a strong contender for the acting Oscar —even if at 63 he is much older than the painter ever was.

“People say, ‘Oh Van Gogh was 37 when he died’, but he looked pretty f***ing tired. Willem’s in good shape. He’s a yogi and can tie himself into a pretzel.

“There’s this otherworldly thing about him. We took a picture before we started with the beard and all this other stuff so we could show he could be the right guy. But that picture isn’t anywhere near how he is in the movie. He became this person; he transformed. I thought if as a friend I didn't ask him to play this role I would be robbing him of having something he needed in his life and I would be robbing myself of the privilege of having him do something so extraordinary.”

Making At Eternity’s Gate has brought Schnabel back to attention in the art world. The Musée d’Orsay in Paris, where he studied Van Gogh’s works in preparation for the film, asked him to mount an exhibition, pairing his own paintings with those of European impressionists.

“There are ten paintings of mine from 1978 to last year and they’re paired with paintings including van Gogh’s last self portrait, two Cezanne paintings that he made in his late 20s and early 30s, Toulouse-Lautrec’s two largest paintings, a beautiful Manet painting, a lesser known Monet and a Gauguin. I guess they thought that if I talked about the paintings or wrote something about them, people could look at them in another way.”

Likewise Schnabel was aiming to offer a very different take on van Gogh in his film. Schnabel maintains he was not a tortured artist and that he was murdered rather than taking his own life.

“Van Gogh had enough money from his brother Theo [Rupert Friend] to buy paint and to eat. I think he did exactly what he wanted to do. He made 75 paintings in 80 days in Auvers-sur-Oise [where he died] and it doesn't seem that a guy who wanted to kill himself would do that. I think it was convenient to sell this notion that he’s the crazy artist who commits suicide … the mythology around him is a cliché.”

Much of the film’s content comes from van Gogh’s letters, notes the film’s co-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who also researched his death. “Van Gogh came back to the auberge wounded. He had a bullet in his stomach and nobody ever found the gun. There is no proof that he killed himself.”

At Eternity’s Gate is in cinemas now.

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