“What I see nobody else sees. It frightens me.”
I have always found comfort in the work of great filmmakers, journeying through their vision as it unfolds in front of my eyes. For me, there’s a vicarious aspect to this because I’ve never longed to create. The sheer indulging in someone else’s act has brought me a great degree of satisfaction. Julian Schnabel’s brilliant and overlooked “At Eternity’s Gate” (2018) is a very special movie for it is that rare opportunity to see a portrait of one highly accomplished artist through the eyes of another. In a conversation I had with the director at the time of the release, he told me, “The Van Gogh seen in the film comes directly out of my personal response to his paintings, not just what people have written about him.”
At a moment in the film, Van Gogh declares that he doesn’t invent what he paints. He says “I find it already in nature, I just have to free it.” We can say the same thing about Schnabel’s approach to filmmaking. He’s able to channel Van Gogh’s story, liberating it from the traditional approaches and making an intimate and deeply personal statement about art and the act of creation, the worshipping passion of the artist’s life and, most importantly, how artists see the world. The whole movie is a bold vision unspooling from the point of view of Van Gogh. In the startling opening scene, the camera, the painter, the director and ourselves (we all become one) approach a confused young peasant woman asking her to pose. The screen is split in two with the bottom half slightly distorted. To enhance the film’s first-person POV, cinematographer Benoît Delhomme uses at times a split diopter on the lens – which creates the exhilarating effect of two different depths of field in one image. “That came from sunglasses I bought at a vintage store that turned out to be bifocals,” Schnabel explained. “The bottom of the lens was a different depth of field than the top and I thought, this could be Vincent’s perspective. It’s a different way to see the scenes in nature.” It divides the screen into two spaces, the way the average person sees reality and the way the artist sees it. There’s a blurry line between these two symbolically divided visions. “Am I the only one to see it? Existence can’t be without reason,” poignantly asks Van Gogh at some point in the narrative.
One of my favorite directors, Schnabel made his directorial debut with “Basquiat” (1996), which detailed the brief life of the Brooklyn-based artist, and became the first-ever commercial feature film about a painter directed by a painter. He followed this with “Before Night Falls,” in which Javier Bardem gave an Oscar nominated performance portraying the persecuted Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, and the masterful “The Diving Bell and The Butterfly” (2007), an autobiographical film like none other, based on the memoir of the same name by Jean-Dominique Bauby. It immerses us into his life after suffering a massive stroke that left him with a condition known as Locked-In-Syndrome, able to use only his left eye to communicate all he was seeing and feeling within. Schnabel uses the frame as a conduit to make us experience things the way Bauby did. It earned Schnabel an Academy Award nomination for Best Director.
The kaleidoscopic structure for “An Eternity’s Gate” came to Schnabel after walking with renowned novelist and screenwriter Jean Claude Carriere through an exhibit of Van Gogh’s paintings at the Musee d’Orsay. The script is co-written by the two along with Louise Kugelberg, an interior designer who will go on to terrifically co-edit the film with Schnabel without any previous experience. “When you stand in front of a particular work, each one tells you something. But after you look at 30 paintings, the experience becomes something more. It becomes an accumulation of all those different feelings put together,” Schnabel mentioned. “That’s the effect I wanted to aim at with the film, to make the structure such that as each event you see happening to Vincent aggregates; it feels as if this entire period of his life is happening to you in a moment.”
In dream-like scenes, Schnabel and his writers focus on the last years of the painter’s life and eschew the well-known milestones. Instead we get to experience Van Gogh’s awareness that he had a new way of taking in things, that he didn’t paint like everyone else and that he was sharing the brand new way of seeing with us. “When facing a flat landscape I see nothing but eternity,” states the painter, viscerally played by Willem Dafoe in an Academy Award nominated turn, and probably his best work to date. It’s much more than acting, it seems like an incarnation. We follow him as he walks through nature, the weight of his easels on his back, but it could also be the weight of responsibility. The film was shot in all the actual places Van Gogh worked and lived in his last two years – Arles, the asylum in Saint-Remy, Auvers-Sur-Oise. It’s in the communion with nature that we start to understand what it means to be an artist. It is about being alive and grasping for the eternal and creating a path for those who are behind us.
This is an elegiac, brilliant film by one of our greatest filmmakers.
Van Gogh: “My vision is closer to the reality of life.”
Available to stream on Netflix and to rent on YouTube, Google Play, Apple TV, iTunes, FandangoNOW, Microsoft, Redbox, DIRECTV, Vudu and Amazon Prime.
Written by Julian Schnabel, Jean-Claude Carrière and Louise Kugelberg
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Starring Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner.
Writer and Director Julian Schnabel on “At Eternity’s Gate”
“I think everybody that’s from the Western world is probably bottle-fed some concept of Van Gogh as a painter,” he said. “And probably Picasso. You don’t know what they do, but you know you’ve heard the names. …I’m from Brooklyn. I had no art education. Probably the first impression of a painting that I remember was the painting of ‘Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer’ by Rembrandt. So you have impressions when you’re a child, and then you become a painter. Then you engage in the materiality of it and the way things are put together. You break everything down to all of the elements. And the more I do it, the more surprised I am at how difficult it is to watch anything.” Looking at Van Gogh’s paintings, Schnabel recognized the technique, and grew frustrated with the artist’s reputation as a mad man. “I thought he was quite sane when he was painting,” Schnabel said. “Those paintings are not paintings of madness. They’re paintings of sanity.” At one point during the production, he shot 19 minutes of footage featuring Dafoe wandering the wilderness with an easel, but he pulled back from making the experience too off-putting. “I like to push the boundaries about as far as I can,” he said, “but at a certain moment, you don’t want people to say, ‘Well, I’m not in the movie anymore.’” With his paintings, Schnabel resists interpretations; as a filmmaker, he’s keen on inviting people in. He made his 1996 debut “Basquiat” as a tribute to his late friend, but the acclaimed work proved to be a seamless transition. “As a painter, I’d been looking at a rectangle for a long time,” he said. “It’s my ecstasy and my pleasure to be involved in that practice, and it is outside a community of people that are going to give you an award for it or not.”
The Musée d’Orsay recently organized a showcase of Schnabel’s work, marking his first Paris exhibition in 30 years. The new show allowed him to pair some of his favorite creations alongside older work from the museum’s collection…“The movie, in a sense, is a mirror of you, as well. I’m trying to reboot people’s perceptions.” He was nonplussed by earlier interpretations of Van Gogh’s work onscreen, from last year’s animated “Loving Vincent” to Robert Altman’s “Vincent and Theo,” in large part because they hewed to conventional approaches. For “At Eternity’s Gate,” Schnabel wanted to deconstruct Van Gogh while introducing viewers to his work from a fresh perspective. “If you want to make a painting, paint something because it didn’t exist before,” Schnabel said. But he conceded that moviegoers needed more context. “They can’t just sit here and go, ‘What’s that?’” he said… “I’m fine with that. People can look at it and they don’t need an explanation. But when you go to the movies, usually you want to know what happened by the end.” He shrugged. “I guess the movie is kind of more radical than other movies that are out at the moment,” he said…fellow painter Dan Colen…A contemporary of Dash Snow, Colen often paints large-scale works that bring to mind some aspects of Schnabel’s style. He admired the movie. “Most of my painting is about hovering between abstraction and figuration,” Colen said in a phone conversation later. “This movie allows us to consider abstraction at the same time as narrative, creating a more open-ended experience. …This is what I relate to. He constructs that ambiguity between narrative and pure visual splendor on the framework of Van Gogh’s mental erosion. It’s very cool that Julian takes that on.” Colen noticed a through-line in Schnabel’s film work. “It’s not that different from Basquiat,” Colen said. “These are people who were so important. The biographies often can help generate excitement around an artist’s work and help a wider audience relate to it, but that same kind of energy can backfire. My biggest struggle as an artist is trying to communicate the experience of the process to my audience, which is impossible to do in a literal way. A lot of the movie is about Julian’s intimate relationship of putting paint onto a canvas.” Schnabel himself wrestled with how much of his own experiences come through in his work. “I mean, why does anybody make a movie? Or why does anybody make a painting?” he said. “Why does anybody make anything? One is to make it for yourself. The other is to share it with other people. If you’re going to show it to somebody else, then a whole other set of variables comes in.” (indiewire.com)
Director of Photography Benoît Delhomme on “At Eternity’s Gate”
“When I met Julian, he already had another cinematographer in mind. He said, “I love talking with you Benoît, I love your ideas, but I met someone before you. Would you consider to work with someone else?” And because I knew that working with Julian would be something very special, I was ready for everything. I said to Julian, “Why not?” But inside, I was mortified. I thought I would never get out of this alive. On this film I apply the rule: Shoot to know how to shoot. Rather than talking, you know, you come and you make a film. I knew no words would convince Julian that I should be the only DP, and why do you want to use words to explain anyway? Make an image, show the image, it will be the proof that you are the right person. I wanted to show that I had ideas on how to shoot a painter. I thought, Julian is a painter, maybe the best thing would be to film him painting. I knew I was taking a big risk. I went to his place in Montauk [on Long Island in New York] for a kind of preparation talk with him. One night he asked, “Do you want to see me painting?” Julian had these six giant canvases, eight meters by meters, in a big, open-air studio. He had a brush at the end of a very long stick, and he was doing incredible things. I had a small Sony camera. And for one hour non-stop, I shot Julian, sort of dancing around him. When I was doing it, I kind of knew I would get the job. Because I found a way to, I don’t know, from nowhere I choreographed something around him. I was the right time on the brush, the right time on him, without being in the way. That night I cut a 30-minute version of the movie. At breakfast I said to Julian do you want to see what I shot yesterday? Julian looked at it without saying a word. At the end he said to me, “I am moved to tears. You completely get it; you know how to shoot a painter.” And he called John Kilik, the producer, and told him that I got the job.
…I think we wanted the camera to be a character in the film. Many times, we wanted the camera to be Willem Dafoe, to be van Gogh. I’ve never been on a film where the camera stayed so much on the main character. At other times the camera may be what he is looking at, what he is seeing. But you can’t always be … You cannot make a film only with POV. It has to be balance between POV and what the man is seeing. I mean if you are only doing POV, then you don’t have the actor in the film. It’s kind of a complicated thing to judge. I felt following Willem so much, being so much with him, in such an intimate way, it was a bit like being him sometimes. Not letting him go was a way to stay with him, to feel what he was feeling in his body, what he is seeing in his brain. I tried to show the world with his eyes. And I felt my operating was more like a gesture from a painter…The fact is we choreographed the film with the camera, and the way I was walking. I had this camera so small I could basically go anywhere with it. I could go right up close to the actors, I could go around them. This concept of how to shoot gave me incredible freedom. But I was building a very structured shot inside this freedom, and I was always in contact with Julian. He would talk to me. I would begin the take, start to improvise, and Julian would say, Benoît, why don’t you go to this beautiful tree on your left?” And then I would come back to Willem Dafoe. Then Julian would scream, “Look at the sky, Ben! Go to the sky!” (ascmag.com)
About Screenwriter Jean -Claude Carriere
Born in 1931, in a small village in the south, Jean -Claude Carriere, son of peasants, received a scholarship and trained as a historian. In 1957, he published his first novel, “Lizard.” He met Jacques Tati and Pierre Etaix, with whom he worked on three short films and four feature films including “The Sighing” and “Yoyo.” In 1963, he met Luis Buñuel, whom he worked with for almost 2O years (“Diary of a Chambermaid,” “Belle de Jour,” “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”). He also worked as a screenwriter with Daniel Vigne (“The Return of Martin Guerre”), Volker Schlöndorff (“The Tin Drum,” “The Forger”), Andrej Wajda (“Danton”), Jacques Deray (“The Swimming Pool,” “Borsalino & Co.”), Jean -Luc Godard (“Sauve Qui Peut” (“La Vie”), Louis Malle (“Viva Maria,” “May Fools”), Jonathan Glazer (“Birth”), Miloš Forman (“Taking Off,” “Valmont”), Jean- Paul Rappeneau (“Cyrano de Bergerac,” “The Horseman on the Roof”), Mikael Hanneke (“The White Ribbon”) and Atiq Rahimi (“Synghé Sabour,” “Pierre de patience”). He wrote his first play, “The Notes,” in 1968, directed by André Barsacq. Thereafter, he never stop writing for theater (“La Terrasse,” “Audition”). He was also a playwright and adapter, including working with Jean- Louis Barrault and with Peter Brook (“The Conference of the Birds,” “The Mahabharata”) for 34 years. As a novelist (“Simon Magus” and “The Controversy of Valladolid”) he wrote the book “The Force of Buddhism” with the Dalai Lama in 1994, “Conversations on the Invisible (1988) with astrophysicists Jean Audouze and Michel Cassé, “Interviews on the End of Time” (1998) and “Do Not Expect to Get Rid of Books” with Umberto Eco.
After recounting his childhood in the Languedoc, Jean-Claude Carrière wrote “The Wine Gruff” (2000) published by Robert Laffont, the “Dictionary of Stupidity” with Guy Bechtel, followed by “The Odd Book,” which experienced several editions (the last in 2014). He also composed the “Love Encyclopedia of India” with Chez Plon (2001), wrote “Goya’s Ghosts” with Miloš Forman (2007), “Circle of Liars” (2008), “Words and Things,” and the encore “Love Encyclopedia of Mexico” (2009). He wrote “Interviews on the Multitude of the World” published by Odile Jacob. With Thibault Damour, “The Rise of Buñuel” (2011) and an essay, “Fragility.” Chez Plon again with “Spanish Memory,” 2012. His latest book, “Money, his life, his death,” was published by Odile Jacob in 2014. His last theatrical experience was a show written with Isabella Rossellini, “Bestiary of Love,” which she interprets herself. In 1986, he founded FEMIS with Jack Gajos, the National School of Film and Television, where he remained president until 1996. For the past 25 years, he has been the co-chair of the theater festival in Montpellier Spring Comedians. He was on the board of directors for SACD (theater department), the Cinematheque, the ENS and the Guimet Museum. He is an Officer of the Legion of Honor and the National Order of Merit. In 2014, he received an Honorary Oscar for his body of work as a screenwriter. (oscars.org)
About Screenwriter Louise Kugelberg
Louise Kugelberg is an interior designer born in Sweden, who has refurbished 18th-century buildings housing private art collections, worked collaboratively to design luxury boutique hotels, and constructed a massive portable pavilion tent out of recycled ocean plastic for Parley for the Oceans. Over the past five years, she has worked extensively with Julian Schnabel, designing exhibition spaces and catalogs as well as co-writing and editing the film “At Eternity’s Gate.” She lives and works in New York. (taschen.com)
About Writer and Director Julian Schnabel
Julian Schnabel is a painter and filmmaker known as an integral member of the American Neo-Expressionists along with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Eric Fischl. Schnabel’s gestural application of paint on massive canvases, use of unconventional materials such as broken plates, and representation of human figure are hallmarks of his most famous works. “My paintings take up room, they make a stand. People will always react to that,” he said of his work. “Some people get inspired, others get offended. But, that’s good. I like that.” Born on October 26, 1951 in Brooklyn, NY, Schnabel participated in the Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in the late 1970s, after which his public persona and popularity grew. The artist turned to feature-filmmaking in the 1990s with his film “Basquiat” (1996), an intimate fictionalized account of the life of his late friend. Schnabel went on to win the Grand Jury Prize for “Before Night Falls” (2000) at the Venice Film Festival and the Best Director Prize at the Cannes Film Festival for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007). He currently lives and works between New York, NY and Montauk, NY. The artist’s works are held in the collections of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, among others. Schnabel’s most recent works include “Miral” (2010) and “At Eternity’s Gate” in 2018. artnet.com)