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Van Gogh: A Portrait of the Artist as a Madman

Are Van Gogh’s talent and madness indissociable? This is the question asked by American director Julian Schnabel in At Eternity’s Gate, an Impressionist portrait of the painter behind the Sunflowers series, coming to U.S. theatres this Friday.

Following in the footsteps of Kirk Douglas (1956), Tim Roth (1990), Martin Scorsese (1990), Jacques Dutronc (1991), and Benedict Cumberbatch (2010), it is now Willem Dafoe’s turn to embody the renowned painter. The straw hat suits him marvelously, and he sports a pallid complexion, hollow eyes, and a red beard covering his cheeks. Audiences will immediately think of the 1889 work, Vincent van Gogh’s final self-portrait.

This likeness is not down to chance. Julian Schnabel’s movie, filmed in the Bouches-du-Rhône and Oise départements, looks back over the painter’s final years. Major events include his arrival in Arles and the discovery of the light in Provence, his “auditive and visual hallucinations,” the moment of madness that drove him to cut off his left ear, his frequent stays at the Saint-Rémy-de-Provence insane asylum, and his death in Auvers-sur-Oise in 1890.

The idea for the movie took root at the Musée d’Orsay, when Julian Schnabel (Basquiat, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) and French novelist Jean-Claude Carrière (who wrote the film’s screenplay) were  together at the Van Gogh/Artaud: The Man Suicided by Society exhibition in 2014. According to Antonin Artaud, the author of the essay that lent the exhibition its name, Van Gogh was not mad. In fact, he was gifted with extraordinary lucidity, which shocked his contemporaries, forced him into seclusion, and led him to take his own life.

A Kaleidoscope of Perceptions and Sensations

The movie is not looking to analyze the artist’s psyche, however. “This is not a forensic biography,” says the director, who is also a painter. “This is an accumulation of scenes based on painter Vincent van Gogh’s letters, common agreements about events in his life that parade as facts, hearsay, and scenes that are just plain invented.” Some scenes are filmed as if in the first person, while others replicate the artist’s hallucinations. Was Van Gogh mad or just hypersensitive? Viewers are given the dual role of critics and psychiatrists.

In his yellow- and ochre-colored meanderings, Willem Dafoe — who learned to paint for some of the movie’s scenes — encounters a series of atypical characters. Mads Mikkelsen plays a priest at the Saint-Rémy-de-Provence hospital, Niels Arestrup portrays another patient, Emmanuelle Seigner is Madame Ginoux, the “Arlésienne” whose portrait was painted six times by Van Gogh, and Mathieu Amalric embodies Doctor Paul Gachet, who was with the painter in his final moments.

At Eternity’s Gate shows us the Vincent van Gogh we never knew,” says a movie critic for Time. “But the film is not necessarily only about a particular individual,” adds another from The Los Angeles Times. “It’s about what it feels like to be an artist, to be overwhelmed and obsessed with the unavoidable need to bring art into the world.”


U.S. release: November 16, 2018

Running time: 111 min
Director: Julian Schnabel
With: Willem Dafoe, Mads Mikkelsen, Niels Arestrup, Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric
U.S. distributor: CBS Films

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