We know Julian Schnabel for working in two forms: painting and film. His work in both has more connection than it might at first seem, since most of his films are about art, or at least about artists. After making it big in the art world himself in the late 1970s and 1980s with his signature large-scale canvasses incorporating a wide variety of materials, he got behind the camera in 1996 to direct Basquiat, a biopic on the eponymous graffiti-artist-turned-painter. In the 2000s he followed it up with Before Night Falls, about Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, about a French magazine editor turned writer after a stroke left him “locked” inside his own head. (At that same time he also shot a Lou Reed concert film, a song from which we’ve previously featured here on Open Culture.)
Now Schnabel has brought his filmmaking career back to where he started it with another film about another painter, a controversial figure in his day, whose influence grew after his early death. At Eternity’s Gate depicts the final days in the life of Dutch Post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh, casting in the role no less a thespian than Willem Dafoe, known for playing everyone from T.S. Eliot to Pier Paolo Pasolini to Jesus of Nazareth.
Though he has already lived a much longer life than Van Gogh ever did, Dafoe no doubt has the skills to use that in the performance’s favor, transmitting the way that the painter saw more deeply into the world around him than anyone else did and got labeled a madman for it. And yes, there was also the matter of his ear, from which the trailer above assures us that Schnabel’s film doesn’t shy away.
But At Eternity’s Gate clearly focuses on Van Gogh’s struggle to pursue his art, according to his personal vision, in an unreceptive time and place. “Rather than simply suggest that madness and genius are inextricably linked, as countless movies of this sort have already done, the filmmaker portrays the act of creating art as less an action and more a state of being, an ever-flowing stream that the man holding the paintbrush is powerless to stop or even control,” writes Indiewire’s Michael Nordine. “Watching the artist at work and hearing nothing but his rapid brushstrokes as the wind howls in the background is meditative, even mesmeric.” Schnabel’s film follows last year’s Loving Vincent, which told Van Gogh’s story with animation made entirely of oil paintings. Its success, and the acclaim that has so far come in for At Eternity’s Gate in advance of its wide release in November, supports one observation in particular made by Dafoe-as-Van Gogh: “Maybe God made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.