From Canvas to Screen: The Films of Julian Schnabel
Julian Schnabel’s fifth narrative feature, At Eternity’s Gate, might be the latest in a long line of films that grapple with the life and work of Vincent van Gogh, but it is arguably the most effective at immersing us fully into his worldview – not just showing us the painter’s world, but conveying a sense of how he might have seen it. The film’s intensity – and it is powerfully, unremittingly intense – shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s Schnabel’s stock in trade, the key element that defines his film work. Just don’t mistake intense for unbearable. At Eternity’s Gate is compelling viewing.
The juncture between creation and perception lies at the heart of Schnabel’s work. If his paintings – he emerged from the New York art scene in the late 1970s and came to dominate it in the 1980s – are the outward projection of his creative impulse, his films balance that impulse in his subjects with the way the world responds to it. In his 1996 feature debut Basquiat, Schnabel’s focus was fellow New Yorker and acclaimed street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who as Samo adorned a dilapidated Manhattan with musings, aphorisms and fragments of poetry. In the film, the trappings of poverty and the city’s state of decay are contrasted with the way Basquiat saw it. Through his eyes, the Manhattan skyline was crowned by a surfer cascading down an eternal, unbreaking wave. (A similarly euphoric visual metaphor accompanies the end credits of Schnabel’s third feature The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), with footage of collapsed walls of ice played backwards, so that they tumble upwards, with muddied water cleansed and a sense of tranquillity restored, all to the calming sound of Tom Wait’s ‘Green Grass’.)
The Cuban poet, playwright and novelist Reinaldo Arenas was the subject of Schnabel’s second feature Before Night Falls (2000). Like Basquiat, the film’s narrative plays out on a linear trajectory, but its pleasures lie in the filmmaker’s expressionistic approach to his subject. The film opens with a point-of-view shot that would become central to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and At Eternity’s Gate. (There could be a version of both these films, like Robert Montgomery’s experimental 1947 noir Lady in the Lake, in which the entire film is presented from the perspective of the main protagonist, who is never seen, save for fleeting reflections in windows and mirrors.) We see treetops through the eyes of a young Arenas, conveying his wonder at the world, whose beauty and cruelty would soon become the palette from which his words take form.
Before Night Falls also continued Schnabel’s ability to attract an extraordinary range of acting talent to his films. Basquiat not only cemented Jeffrey Wright’s credentials, it also featured David Bowie as Andy Warhol, Benicio Del Toro, Parker Posey, Dennis Hopper, Courtney Love, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Walken and Gary Oldman, who plays a fictional version of Schnabel. Likewise, Johnny Depp, Olivier Martinez, Sean Penn and Diego Luna appear alongside Javier Bardem in Before Night Falls, the latter excelling as Arenas.
If Berlin (2007), Schnabel’s documentary record of Lou Reed’s performance of his 1973 album, and Miral, his 2010 drama about a young Palestinian girl torn between conflict and a desire for peace, seem at odds with Schnabel’s other work, both films still draw on the relationship between motivation and reception. Reed’s album was a critical and commercial failure upon its original release (relative to Reed’s other releases at the time – the album still went silver in the UK), but over the course of the subsequent 30 years it has grown in stature.
The four concerts the musician played at St. Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn were the first time the album had been played in its entirety. Schnabel designed the staging (his daughter Lola shot the film-within-a-film) and shot the concert in an unfussy style that helped to emphasise the power of Reed’s brilliant, mournful and uncompromising work. Miral might have been poorly received by critics, but if Schnabel is at fault it is because of the scope of his ambition – tackling an incendiary topic that few films have successfully traversed.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and At Eternity’s Gate could conceivably be seen as two sides of the same coin. Visually, they are dazzling. And such is their sense of immersion that each feels as though we have been transplanted into the psyche of their subjects. In the case of Diving Bell, it’s Jean-Dominique Bauby, the Elle magazine editor who succumbed to locked-in syndrome, physically separated from the world save for the ability with his one intact eye to communicate with those around him. It resulted in his writing the eponymous account of his disability, which was published ten days before his death.
In collaboration with Steven Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, Schnabel takes us into Bauby’s world, to emotionally devastating effect. Likewise, Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography for At Eternity’s Gate captures the colours that would dominate Van Gogh’s paintings, and drawing out the summer yellows and winter blues that so affected the artist’s moods.
One early scene in At Eternity’s Gate finds Van Gogh (a stunning Willem Dafoe) walking through a field of sunflower stalks. Resembling the haunting imagery of contemporary Japanese photographer Miho Kajioka, their sparseness seems to reflect the sense of despair Van Gogh experiences. It is both breathtaking and telling, highlighting how far Schnabel has come as a filmmaker and continuing his interest in exploring his subject’s inner and outer lives. This scene alone makes the film worth watching. But it is just one moment in a film that challenges and rewards in equal measure.
At Eternity’s Gate plays in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinemas from Friday 29 March