• Van Gogh's "Self-Portrait", 1889
  • "Sorrowing Old Man" (At Eternity's Gate), 1890
  • "Portrait of Dr Gachet", 1890
  • Willem Dafoe plays as Vincent Van Gogh in "At Eternity's Gate" (2018). /IMDB.com
  • Willem Dafoe plays as Vincent Van Gogh in "At Eternity's Gate" (2018). / IMDB.com
  • Director Julian Schnabel (left) and actor Willem Dafoe attend a photocall for the film "At Eternity's Gate" at the 75th Venice Film Festival at Venice Lido. /AFP

Portrait of the artist

movie & TV September 05, 2018 10:00


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The claim that Van Gogh was murdered forms the basis for 'At Eternity's Gate'

A NEW film about the artist Vincent Van Gogh claims that he was murdered rather than having shot himself.

“At Eternity’s Gate” starring Willem Dafoe as the tortured genius, was premiered Monday at the Venice film festival.

In it the painter is shot after a struggle with local youths near the village of Auvers-sur-Oise outside Paris, where the artist spent his final months in 1890.

 Van Gogh's "Self-Portrait", 1889

He died 36 hours later after staggering back to the local inn in the dark.

While most historians agree that Van Gogh killed himself, renowned painter and Oscar-nominated director Julian Schnabel fuels a theory that he was killed in the film.

Legendary French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere – who co-wrote the script with Schnabel – says there “is absolutely no proof he killed himself. Do I believe that Van Gogh killed himself? Absolutely not!”

“He came back to the auberge with a bullet in his stomach and nobody ever found the gun or his painting materials,” Carriere adds

“What we have been fighting against is the dark romantic legend of Van Gogh. In the last period of his life Van Gogh was working constantly. Every day he made a new work.”

 "Sorrowing Old Man" (At Eternity's Gate), 1890 

His final weeks, when he painted the “Portrait of Dr Gachet” – which set a world record when it sold for $82.5 million (Bt2.9 billon) in 1990 – were “not at all sad”, the writer argues.

Schnabel insists that a man who had painted 75 canvasses in his 80 days at Auvers-sur-Oise was unlikely to be suicidal.

The theory that Van Gogh did not commit suicide was first raised in a 2011 biography of the painter by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.

Director Julian Schnabel (left) and actor Willem Dafoe attend a photocall for the film "At Eternity's Gate" at the 75th Venice Film Festival at Venice Lido. /AFP

Schnabel says neither the gun nor “the painting material he had that day were ever found. It is strange to bury your s**t if you are committing suicide.”

“At Eternity’s Gate” is also likely to open a new front in the row over Van Gogh’s “lost” sketchbook, which purportedly resurfaced after 126 years in 2016 and was authenticated by two eminent art historians last year.

Veteran British expert Ronald Pickvance claimed the book was “the most revolutionary discovery in the history of Van Gogh” studies.

But the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam hotly disputes its provenance and dismissed the drawings as fakes.

The book, originally a ledger from the Cafe de la Gare in Arles where Van Gogh stayed at various times between 1888 and 1890, features prominently in the film.

Willem Dafoe plays as Vincent Van Gogh in "At Eternity's Gate" (2018). /IMDB.com

When Dafoe, who looks uncannily like the Van Gogh in the film, was limbering up to play thar artist, he did something that will give museum curators nightmares for years to come.

He was leafing through that “lost” sketchbook of the artist’s from his time in Arles, when Schnabel looked at him like a man possessed.

“We had the white gloves on and everything,” Dafoe recalls, “and we were gently going through it looking at the drawings. Then at one point Julian grabbed my hand and slammed it down on one of the sketches.

“It was like something out of ‘The Exorcist’,” the actor adds.

“He was forcing a transmission – a connection between me and Van Gogh – and I think it worked.

Critics at the Venice film festival agree, with Dafoe an early favourite for the best actor prize.

Like Schnable, Dafoe believes the sketchbook is genuine.

The two are on familiar territory tackling the furies that drive and sometimes dog great artists.

Dafoe had to grapple with the demons of the great Italian director Paolo Pasolini in Abel Ferrara’s 2014 film “Pasolini”.

Schnabel also brought the tortured life of his old friend on the New York art scene, Jean Michel Basquiat, to the big screen in “Basquiat”.

In that film, the painter – who got four Oscar nods for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” – did not pull back from the hell Basquiat endured before his early death from a heroin overdose.

Willem Dafoe plays as Vincent Van Gogh in "At Eternity's Gate" (2018). / IMDB.com

But Dafoe says his Van Gogh film is more than a simple biopic.

“I hate to be a cheerleader for my own movie but this is quite radical and emotional, it is not conventional in any way.

“It is not an ‘awards movie’, made with one eye on the Oscars. “It is about painting, it is about being an artist, it is about nature and spirituality... because Van Gogh wanted to be a pastor before he became a painter. He thought the bible was the greatest book ever written,” Dafoe notes.

“Painting is something Julian really knows – this is where his two loves come together: painting and filmmaking.”

Dafoe, who first learned to paint three decades ago for “To Live and Die in LA”, when he played an art forger, says shooting in the fields around Arles and in the asylum at Saint-Remy where Van Gogh wrote that “one continually hears shouts and terrible howls as of animals in a menagerie”, gave him goosebumps.

“I felt close to him,” he says.

Unlike other films about Van Gogh, such as the 1956 classic |“Lust for Life” starring Kirk Douglas, Dafoe says the new movie avoids |“the greatest hits” like the “Sunflowers” or depicting him hacking off his ear when he fell out with Gauguin.

“But for part of the movie he has no ear. We do not shy away from what he did to himself.

“It focuses on the end of Van Gogh’s life and starts right before he meets Gauguin and he goes to Arles,” he says.

“We shot there and in Paris |and in Auvers-sur-Oise,” where |Van Gogh shot himself – |although the film goes with the controversial theory that he was killed after grappling with some local youths.

"The Church at Auvers", 1890

By filming in so many real locations like Saint-Remy, “part of which is still a hospital, we were flirting with his ghost”, says Dafoe, who missed out on a best actor Oscar for “Florida Project” last year.

“I never thought about any other person playing Van Gogh,” Schnabel adds.

“Willem has such inner depth. To have him with me on set was the best ally I could have.”

The ebullient New Yorker also wanted to correct the “bad rap” that Van Gogh’s friend Paul Gauguin gets from history.

Van Gogh may have cut off his ear when the painter announced he was leaving him to return to Paris, but “Gauguin really cared about him”, Schnabel says. 

“He is portrayed usually as an arsehole. Anthony Quinn [in the 1956 movie “Lust for Life”] played him like that, but he wasn’t.”