Eye on eter­nity

Dafoe takes on chal­lenge of em­body­ing van Gogh


TORONTO — Like one of Vin­cent van Gogh’s paint­ings, Willem Dafoe’s ac­claimed new role as the Dutch post- im­pres­sion­ist artist came to­gether with pas­sion­ate brush strokes. There was also “a very bad fake beard.”

First came the de­vel­op­ment stage for At Eter­nity’s Gate when Dafoe got in­volved — not to au­di­tion for the part but to help di­rec­tor/ cowriter Ju­lian Schn­abel, who is his long­time friend.

The film­maker asked Dafoe to read the lengthy bi­og­ra­phy Van Gogh: The Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gre­gory White Smith, and pick out things he found in­ter­est­ing.

“He didn’t even ask me to play the role yet,” Dafoe re­called in a re­cent in­ter­view. “I read the book and made the notes just out of sheer plea­sure of study­ing some­thing that was in­ter­est­ing and con­tribut­ing.”

The three- time Os­car- nom­i­nated ac­tor then be­came more deeply in­volved in the process, which cul­mi­nated in a din­ner at Schn­abel’s house with co- writ­ers Jean- Claude Car­riere and Louise Kugel­berg.

“They put a very bad fake beard on me and put me in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions and we took some pic­tures,” re­called Dafoe, who’s earned Os­car nom­i­na­tions for roles in Platoon, Shadow of the Vam­pire and The Florida Pro­ject.

“By the end of that, that’s when he re­ally asked me to do the role. It wasn’t a con­ven­tional way to be cast, but we are friends, so we could keep it loose for a while and then fi­nally he asked me and I was happy to do it.”

The film de­picts van Gogh as a trou­bled in­tel­lect liv­ing in poverty near the end of his life in Ar­les and Au­vers- sur- Oise, France. Os­car Isaac co- stars as French postim­pres­sion­ist artist Paul Gau­guin, van Gogh’s friend who tries to con­vince him to slow down and plan out his paint­ings.

Ru­pert Friend plays van Gogh’s brother and main sup­port sys­tem, Theo, who tries to re­as­sure him that he is in­deed a great artist.

The story is part biopic, part in­ter­pre­ta­tion about van Gogh — it’s driven by his let­ters and other real- life records, as well as myths about him and Schn­abel’s per­sonal re­sponse to his paint­ings.

Dafoe learned how to paint from the New York- born Schn­abel, who is in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned for his large- scale paint­ings made with bro­ken ce­ramic plates.

The di­rec­tor of Be­fore Night Falls and The Div­ing Bell and the But­ter­fly set up can­vases with Dafoe out­doors, guided by the light and weather in “bru­tal” tem­per­a­tures on “a very bleak land­scape” in Novem­ber and De­cem­ber.

Dafoe found the paint­ing “quite thrilling” as he came to un­der­stand how the marks on the canvas “vi­brate and they talk to each other,” said the Wis­con­sin na­tive.

“I had to con­cen­trate so much on the paint­ing, be­cause I had so much pres­sure to paint in a way that ap­proached some sort of con­nec­tion or some sort of joy,” he said.

“Of course I didn’t al­ways suc­ceed and right now, this film has not turned me into a pain­ter. But I did have a shift in how I see things.”

The film touches on van Gogh’s in­fa­mous mu­ti­la­tion of his ear and his mental- health bat­tle, show­ing break­downs and manic episodes that he feels might ac­tu­ally fuel his art.

Dafoe, a found­ing mem­ber of ex­per­i­men­tal theatre com­pany The Wooster Group, said he didn’t fo­cus on van Gogh’s mental state.

“I re­ally con­cen­trated mostly on try­ing to find some inkling of that union with na­ture; that union through some sort of con­nec­tion to higher power through the na­ture and through the paint­ing,” he said. “And if that’s mad­ness, well, what can I say.”

Over­all the film is a med­i­ta­tive look at van Gogh’s life, with many scenes free of di­a­logue as the cam­era fol­lows him on his long treks through gor­geous land­scapes, sketch­ing, paint­ing and be­ing one with his sur­round­ings while wear­ing his sig­na­ture straw hat.

“It’s no ac­ci­dent that he paints in these great swirls some­times,” Dafoe said. “I’m imag­in­ing, by see­ing his paint­ing and by read­ing his let­ters, he un­der­stood some sort of swirl — the rise and fall of things — and he was able to con­tact that through his play of colours, through his brush stroke, through his paint­ing.”


Willem Dafoe as Vin­cent Van Gogh in Ju­lian Schn­abel’s At Eter­nity’s Gate.

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