Thursday, March 21, 2019

At Eternity's Gate (Julian Schnabel)


It isn't as if the life of Vincent Van Gogh hasn't been adapted for the big screen before. Lust for Life was Vincente Minnelli's lusty take (based on Irving Stone's novel), with Kirk Douglas holding little back as he strained to suggest Vincent's intensity; Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo focused on the relationship between the Van Gogh brothers and their destructively parallel trajectories; Maurice Pialat's Van Gogh--easily the most unsentimental of the collection--presents a harsh uningratiating view of a harsh uningratiating artist, avoiding the traditional highlights (including that ear thing) and dwelling on more quotidian activities--Pialat doesn't even make much effort to show the paintings, or approximate Vincent's unmistakable style onscreen. 

So what does Julian Schnabel's latest bring to the party? 

An episode early in the film crystallizes the filmmaker's approach: Vincent (Willem Dafoe) coming out of a cafe confesses to his new-met friend Paul Gaugin (Oscar Isaac): "I'd like to find new light. For paintings we haven't yet seen." Gaugin: "Go south Vincent."

Cut to a room plunged in shadow. Baleful blue light streams though a window; against the mistral's low steady roar the panes bang against their frame and skeletal twigs tap faint greeting. Vincent enters settles down pulls the laces off his shoes the shoes off his feet; the camera rotates so that leg and boot stretch horizontally across the screen then rotates again so tossed-off boot remains horizontal. Vincent puts canvas to easel and starts painting his boot; Dafoe in an interview nicely sums up the process: "Watching it as an audience, for a long time, [the canvas] looks bad--the colors look wrong, it’s not a good likeness, but, then, with some color choices, and some marks, it comes into focus." Painter turned filmmaker Schnabel collaborating with cinematographer turned painter Benoit Delhomme works to create marks that may look wrong may not be a good likeness, but eventually and for the most part come into focus. 

I say 'for the most part' because the director seems determined to push his experimentation far as he can, not always successfully. The narrative barely seems to exist (if you want a coherent sketch Minnelli's version seems best). Schnabel seems to want to exult in texture and mood rather than historical fact: the painter's heavy blue coat (early on we have a protracted shot of the coat being slowly unbuttoned), the thick smears of paint, the ravishing countrysides. Most of all Schnabel seems to exult in Dafoe's Vincent, treating his face and outstretched ropy arms like one of the artist's landscapes, lingering over every furrow and crag every pebbled surface every spiderweb of creases. Dafoe delivers intensity yes but also a rich tenderness, his voice at times rasping desperate at times dreamy softspoken: when Theo (Rupert Friend) visits him in the hospital after a breakdown Vincent asks for a hug and Theo climbs into bed with his brother--a startling moment that at the same time feels unapologetically natural, thanks to the two actors. 

Does Schnabel go too far? The film flashes back to depict root causes, flashes forward to reveal consequences; fragments of dialogue sometimes echo, suggesting that Vincent's head is a chamber of painful memories bouncing back and forth till he has to lash out either at others or himself to relieve his distress. Occasionally there's a blackout, a literal rendering of what Vincent himself describes as a loss of memory--self-censorship you might say as he deletes moments in his life too agonizing to recall. Some critics have complained about all the yellow in the film, a suggestion that the painter suffered from xanthopsia; valid complaint save that if you relax lean back look around you spot the motif everywhere: in the rows of jeweled hexagons radiating from the sky, in the lemony tinge to Arles' spring buds, in the latticed straw of the artist's hat, even in the wavy tawniness of Dafoe's hair. Schnabel is saying the yellow isn't so much a medical condition (I submit) but a condition of life: Vincent in seeking a new light found it in the sundrenched soil of Southern France.   

Then there's the blur. Schnabel went to Delhomme and showed him a pair of bifocals; Delhomme proceeded to experiment with split diopters to approximate what the director wanted. Filmmakers have used the device before--famously in Citizen Kane, frequently in '70s films; Brian De Palma is a big fan. The effect--of two images one distant one up close, both in focus--is often accompanied by a line or shadow across the screen concealing the blurry boundary. Schnabel uses the device without excuse or explanation, and the effect can be jarring: what's the out-of-focus lower half of the screen supposed to represent--an approximation of the distorted stylization in Impressionist art? Delhomme was told that it looked like tears and likes that interpretation; I like the explanation's simplicity. Hokey? Perhaps, but I submit that the split screen also suggests the divided nature of Vincent's point of view, half harsh reality, half--something else, something we can't properly approximate onscreen that only snaps into focus for all eternity in his paintings. 

Like it or not there's something admirable about the filmmaker's refusal to repeat himself--to tell Vincent's story the way he did Jean-Michel Basquiat's (Schnabel's debut feature, a somewhat more conventional biopic) or Reynaldo Arenas (a lyrical interpretation complete with balloon ride a la Tarkvosky's Andrei Rublev) or Jean-Dominique Bauby's (told mostly out of his left eye). The last film's style I'd call a stunt only that's how Bauby saw the world, which Schnabel decides to depict in the most direct (and technically difficult) manner possible. 

Vincent Van Gogh is arguably a challenge of a different order, a master in a medium Schnabel himself knows intimately; would follow that Schnabel pours everything he has learned and plenty he doesn't (but hope works anyway) into the film. He put himself out there--innovations mistakes everything--and the result is not just one of the best but one of the most courageous films of last year. 

First published in Businessworld 3.15.19

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