Almost Like Hearing His Heartbeat

 Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh in "At Eternity's Gate," side by side with Van Gogh in Self Portrait with a Bandaged Ear, 1889. Graphic by Jillian Cheney. Original still credit to CBS Films.

Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh in "At Eternity's Gate," side by side with Van Gogh in Self Portrait with a Bandaged Ear, 1889. Graphic by Jillian Cheney. Original still credit to CBS Films.

 

An American artist and a French screenwriter walk into an art gallery in Paris. What comes next isn’t a joke about artists, novelists or the French, but rather “At Eternity’s Gate,” the film about artist Vincent Van Gogh that is a work of art in itself.

Julian Schnabel, the artist and filmmaker in question, didn’t originally want to make a film about Van Gogh. But after this visit to the Musée d'Orsay in Paris to see an exhibit on Antonin Artaud and Van Gogh, Schnabel’s mind was changed.

“The structure is that there are 15 paintings in a show, or 15 vignettes,” Schnabel said about his decision-making process for the film in a panel interview with the Film Society of Lincoln Center. “Then something happens as if you saw each painting, and cumulatively at the end you walk out as if you’d seen the whole show, that could be the way we would approach writing this.”

 
 

His companion, famed novelist and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, decided then that he also wanted to make a movie about Van Gogh: but for different reasons. The realization came as they stood in front of one of Van Gogh’s self portraits.

“I had the feeling while Julian was explaining it to me—technically, not artistically,” Carrière said. “‘You see, look carefully, there are three different blues. Prussian blues, cerulean, blue marlin, and there is a small, very then red circle around his eyes.’ I was looking, and I had the feeling that Van Gogh really was listening to us. That almost I was hearing his heartbeat. When we left, I had the feeling Van Gogh was following us with his eyes, that he was really alive.”

These two perspectives, that the audience is at an art show and that Van Gogh himself is alive in the room, are the driving components of the movie. This is what makes “At Eternity’s Gate” stand apart from other adaptations of Van Gogh: he is treated first as an artist and second as a man, rather than just a tortured soul.

“I was looking, and I had the feeling that Van Gogh really was listening to us. That almost I was hearing his heartbeat. When we left, I had the feeling Van Gogh was following us with his eyes, that he was really alive.” —Jean-Claude Carrière

“At Eternity’s Gate” takes place during the last few months of the life of Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe), which was spent mostly in the small, French town Arles. The advice to “go south” of Paris comes from Van Gogh’s close friend Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac).

Of course, when Gauguin advised him to go south, he meant somewhere more tropical. During most of the year, Arles was pleasant and beautiful. But Arles in February of 1888 was overwhelmingly dreary. Van Gogh has little food, despite receiving regular checks from his brother Theo (Rupert Friend), and there would appear to be no possible source of inspiration for his art.

But his worn, unlaced boots sitting limply on the floor provide the inspiration Van Gogh needs to paint, and paint he does.

 The Harvest, 1888. Credit to the Van Gogh Museum.

The Harvest, 1888. Credit to the Van Gogh Museum.

“He turned that room into that painting,” Schnabel said about the scene, “and he turned something that was relatively drab and dreary into something delicious and full of light.”

One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is that Van Gogh isn’t the only one creating delicious things; in fact, a lot of the credit goes to Dafoe himself. Schnabel taught him how to paint during the filmmaking process, so all of the paintings shown on-screen were done by hand, without blocking or other tricks of the camera. This advances the film’s intimacy, and Dafoe claims it was one of the most important parts of his experience.

“As an actor when I’m saying those things, I’m not thinking about Vincent Van Gogh,” he said. “I’m thinking about me and how I feel about making things, and how I feel about my life.”

 Orchards in Blossom, 1889. Credit to the Van Gogh Museum.

Orchards in Blossom, 1889. Credit to the Van Gogh Museum.

Van Gogh surrounds himself with nature—tree roots, flowers, trees, the wheat fields of Arles—and finds a majority of his artistic inspiration in the landscape. His mood and his art is improved further when Gauguin comes to stay for a few months at the end of 1888. When Gauguin tells Van Gogh he’s leaving that December, however, Van Gogh utterly breaks down. It is because of this that Van Gogh ultimately severs his ear, in a desperate attempt to get his friend to stay, but this happens later and off-screen.

At times, this scene being one of them, when the audience is viewing the world through Van Gogh’s eyes, the camera displays a split diopter, inspired by a pair of bifocal sunglasses Schnabel found in a vintage store. The camera shakes as he runs out of the Church of St. Trophime, distraught with the knowledge that his closest friend is leaving him. The camera work often succeeds in making the audience distraught on Van Gogh’s behalf—or maybe legitimately distraught themselves.

Therein lies, again, one of the main messages of the film: “It’s not about him,” Schnabel said. “You are him.”

 Tree Roots, 1890. Credit to the Van Gogh Museum.

Tree Roots, 1890. Credit to the Van Gogh Museum.

The film is based on fact: these facts come mostly from Van Gogh’s letters to and from his brother, friends and others. But as with any historical narrative, there is room for creative license, which Schnabel and Carrière were unafraid to take. The portrayal of Van Gogh’s death in particular is controversial, but doesn’t seem out of place with the rest of the events of the film.

The last shot of the film, however, is as true as can be. At Van Gogh’s funeral, he laid surrounded by all of the art he hadn’t sold—which was quite a few pieces. Those who attended were encouraged to take a canvas if they wanted, but even then few accepted the offer.

The closing image is moving; Vincent Van Gogh was a man who lived by his art and died by his art, and above all it was an expression of his humanity.

More than just a tribute to a recognized artist, “At Eternity’s Gate” is a tribute to art itself. Vincent Van Gogh is the flawed, very human vehicle for this art, and through his intimacy in his work he has become intimate with his audience, which ultimately makes this movie a delight to see.