Julian Schnabel’s film will star Willem Dafoe as the legendary Dutch artist.
Julian Schnabel is no stranger to directing critically acclaimed biopics about creative geniuses. He made his debut with Basquiat, established his reputation with Before Night Falls, and gained global raves as well as a Best Director nomination for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
Now, eight years since his last film (the lukewarmly received Miral), he’s returning to form in a big way with At Eternity’s Gate, a biopic that will star Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh.
CBS Films already seems eager to position the film as an awards contender. According to Deadline, the company recently inked a US distribution deal with Schnabel that includes a respectable seven-figure minimum guarantee, Oscar qualifying run, and platform release set for late 2018.
The biopic will specifically focus on the renowned Dutch Post-Impressionist’s “ambition to be accepted as a great painter, and his plunge into depression when he was rejected.” Dafoe will is heading a stellar cast that also includes Oscar Isaac as friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin, as well as Rupert Friend and Mads Mikkelsen in supporting roles.
Granted, audiences haven’t exactly ever been left wanting for Van Gogh-related content on screen. Kirk Douglas was the first actor to bring him to life on the big screen with 1956’s acclaimed Lust for Life, and the artist has since been portrayed by notable actors ranging from Tim Roth in Vincent and Theo to Benedict Cumberbatch in the TV docudrama Van Gogh: Painted with Words.
Last year’s Oscar-nominated experimental animated film Loving Vincent also mined the artist’s tumultuous life and breathtaking work for drama in a distinctly unconventional way, recounting the last days of Van Gogh’s life through 65,000 original oil-painted frames.
But it doesn’t seem like At Eternity’s Gate will be held back by a familiar subject. If anything, Van Gogh’s enduring fame has ensured that films about him are always bound to find an audience. Other larger-than-life historical figures, such as Winston Churchill, have likewise already been captured countless times on screen — but that perceived lack of originality didn’t stop Gary Oldman from running away with the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the British prime minister in Darkest Hour (a role he could even potentially reprise in a follow-up film).
Over the years, Van Gogh’s sensational and ultimately tragic life story has ballooned into something bigger than the man himself, distorting his popular reputation into little more than a tortured-artist caricature. But Dafoe is an actor who seems genuinely capable of animating the the artist’s tangible, flesh-and-blood humanity. He’s fresh off his third Best Supporting Actor nod for his role in the otherwise severely underrated The Florida Project, to which he brought both gravitas and gentleness to his portrayal of a protective motel manager. At Eternity’s Gate is poised to be his first chance at earning a well-deserved shot in the Best Actor race.
Furthermore, Schnabel’s take on the painter will be uniquely informed by the director’s own perspective as a painter and his commitment to immersing the viewer in Van Gogh’s artistic perception.
In an interview with Indiewire, Schnabel largely dismissed the 36 prior films that have addressed the artist’s life — “I don’t think they get it,” he said, adding, “Maybe I have to be a painter to be able to do this film, that’s probably why I’m doing it. I see it the way I make a painting or a work of art.”
The film will also reportedly adopt a first-person point of view, following the solitary Van Gogh as he wanders through the French countryside and seeks out ordinary human interaction. Schnabel aspires for the film to “exist outside of time,” and additionally to make its viewer “feel not like you are watching Vincent Van Gogh, but you are living his life.”
Schnabel’s direction will likely prioritize sheer evocative power over dry biographical details, and the film’s emotional weight will likely come from Dafoe’s quiet, warm intensity as a performer rather than any scenery-chewing bombast.
If At Eternity’s Gate lives up to its hype as a sweeping and decidedly unconventional portrait of one of the world’s most iconic artists, it seems like a sure bet for awards-season greatness.