A love story

Julian Schnabel and Jean-Claude Carrière on paintings, movement and At Eternity's Gate

by Anne-Katrin Titze

At Eternity's Gate with Louise Kugelberg, Jean-Claude Carrière, Julian Schnabel, Willem Dafoe, Oscar Isaac, and Rupert Friend at the 56th New York Film Festival
At Eternity's Gate with Louise Kugelberg, Jean-Claude Carrière, Julian Schnabel, Willem Dafoe, Oscar Isaac, and Rupert Friend at the 56th New York Film Festival Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate, shot by Benoît Delhomme, co-written with Louise Kugelberg and Jean-Claude Carrière (seen in Margarethe von Trotta's Searching For Ingmar Bergman) and starring Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh, with Oscar Isaac as Gauguin, Rupert Friend as Theo, Mathieu Amalric as Dr. Gachet, Emmanuelle Seigner as Madame Ginoux, Anne Consigny as the Teacher, Mads Mikkelsen as the Priest, and Niels Arestrup as the Madman, is the Closing Night selection of the 56th New York Film Festival.

Willem Dafoe At Eternity's Gate press conference
Willem Dafoe At Eternity's Gate press conference Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Mathieu Amalric emailed me from Belgium the morning after the première: "Impossible to leave Brussels. Shooting every single day in Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen mini-series for Arte". As Dr. Gachet, he is being painted by van Gogh and is told to remain still, which he had to when he starred in Schnabel’s The Diving Bell And The Butterfly.

"I just want to be one of them," is the first line we hear Willem Dafoe's Vincent say off-screen in Julian Schnabel's wondrous portrait of van Gogh's soul. The desire to belong is the beating heart of the film. Through his friendship with Paul Gaugin (Oscar Isaac), based on respect despite differences in approach, he attempts to belong to a community of artists. Through the act of painting, he belongs to nature, to the golden tips of cypresses and the earth clinging to his shoes. It is the relationship to his brother Theo (Rupert Friend), who supported him in every way throughout his life - with money and by recognising his genius when nobody else would - that set him up for a sheer impossible standard in human interaction.

At the press conference moderated by Kent Jones with Julian Schnabel, Willem Dafoe, Oscar Isaac, Rupert Friend, Louise Kugelberg, and Jean-Claude Carrière, I asked the director about a poignant scene showing the brotherly love between Vincent and Theo and Jean-Claude Carrière, who offered me his microphone, took off from there, prompting the following exchange.

Julian Schnabel: "Actors will talk about how they get something, I mean, Chris Walken and Dennis Hopper talked about how they would dance together doing a scene in True Romance."
Julian Schnabel: "Actors will talk about how they get something, I mean, Chris Walken and Dennis Hopper talked about how they would dance together doing a scene in True Romance." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Anne-Katrin Titze: The relationship between the brothers is truly remarkable. I don't remember having seen brotherly love presented quite as strongly as here. Could you talk a little bit - especially about that scene where the two of you [Willem Dafoe and Rupert Friend] are in bed together, hugging each other. It's absolutely remarkable. Can you talk about that?

Julian Schnabel: Maybe Rupert?

Rupert Friend: You want me to talk about it what?

Julian Schnabel: Whatever you want to.

Rupert Friend: I said why?

Julian Schnabel: Why? I start and then … How long is this press conference supposed to be?

Kent Jones (jokingly): Only a couple of hours. I mean, we got a première coming up.

Julian Schnabel: When I wanted Rupert to be in this movie, we didn't know each other. I knew everyone else but I didn't know Rupert. But I'd seen him in Homeland and thought he was amazing. But he asked me in the beginning because there's not a lot of talking that he does but I thought that what he was going to do and what he would show, would have so much feeling, he wouldn't have to say a whole lot.

Julian Schnabel on Rupert Friend as Theo van Gogh: "I'd seen him in Homeland and thought he was amazing."
Julian Schnabel on Rupert Friend as Theo van Gogh: "I'd seen him in Homeland and thought he was amazing." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

And I think what is really remarkable is how much feeling Rupert feels. And what you're saying [Anne-Katrin] exactly, how much love came out of him and the kind of affection. So there is no … It's very interesting to see how somebody can be really really still and really deep and really loving. And it just speaks to whatever's going on. I think everybody in this movie has a rich inner life and they bring that with them to the film. Everyone of these guys.

Jean-Claude Carrière: May I try to ask a question and to answer it?

Julian Schnabel: Sure.

Jean-Claude Carrière: There is a love story between painting and movies. because the painting is still and doesn't move. And movies move. It's a love story that goes back to the prehistoric caves when the first painters tried to give the illusion of movement. By a series of heads of deer or tigers running one after the other. One of the attempts of many filmmakers is, they try to reach this sort of emotion inside the deer body.

When Julian started making films at the end of the Eighties, he was already a recognised painter. And he tried to go to make films. And he made very good four films, five. In one of his films, Before Night Falls, with Javier Bardem, I've seen a moment which reminds me strangely enough of the prehistoric caves.

Jean-Claude Carrière on Julian Schnabel: "In one of his films, Before Night Falls, with Javier Bardem, I've seen a moment which reminds me strangely enough of the prehistoric caves."
Jean-Claude Carrière on Julian Schnabel: "In one of his films, Before Night Falls, with Javier Bardem, I've seen a moment which reminds me strangely enough of the prehistoric caves." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The moment Javier is prisoner inside this cell, very narrow, and he cannot move at all. I have never seen in all my life such a strong scene about feeling myself in prison as if I were the actor, the character himself. You know, that was the first time that emotion and no motion would confirm and be one … Now looking at your paintings from the Eighties, I see something different. I see motions, movements, that I couldn't see before.

Maybe because of this film where you try once again to make the motionless move and the moving be immobile. That's something that strikes me a lot. It's a love story between painting and people like Poussin, like Matisse, who tried to like talk about and wrote about the impossibility of making the moving, something that moves, motionless. To be a motionless moving. That's something which I find in this film maybe for the first time.

Julian Schnabel: I guess you asked the question and you answered it. I guess there's something that happens in the film. There's moments when the movie goes black and how for me, maybe for everybody I would imagine - I mean you wake up in the morning before you start talking to anybody - you're thinking about something and have thoughts in your head - you start with lights coming on and look at someone else and start talking. But I think there are these stoppages.

Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh in Julian Schnabel's At Eternity's Gate
Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh in Julian Schnabel's At Eternity's Gate

In the blackouts something is happening to the audience. I think that you sit there, you don't know if there's something wrong with the film. I know that some of the people from CBS were checking the film - why did the film go black? And then it comes back on and they realize it's part of the movie. I think what he's [Jean-Claude] talking about makes sense in the way that we're all about 6 feet tall, some are a little shorter, some are a little taller. You stand and you look at a painting that's 16 feet tall, we're all sort of looking at it from the same place.

You have a perspective, I mean it's a physical thing that occurs. And there's a physical way that you can look at a film. We're all sitting in front of this big screen and we're in the dark. And when the film stops and then it takes you out of the movie for a moment. But then when it comes back you have to focus again in another way.

And these kinds of stoppages - I don't know - if you've ever been in an aeroplane - and you can feel the … and then you start hyperventilating or whatever and then it kind of goes away, comes back. There's a physical property to actually the equivalence of nothingness and somethingness. And I think by the time you get to the end of the movie, there's a kind of rhythm, I mean it was for me, that occurs.

Oscar Isaac is Paul Gauguin and Emmanuelle Seigner is Madame Ginoux in At Eternity's Gate
Oscar Isaac is Paul Gauguin and Emmanuelle Seigner is Madame Ginoux in At Eternity's Gate

So you have a physical relationship with it rather than just somebody telling you a story. Something's happening to you. And maybe that has to do with being still, maybe it has to do with sitting in your seat.

When we were shooting the movie, I think normally an editor would look at the film and say "That person is talking to the camera but he isn't talking to the camera. Shouldn't things match up?" Well, no, I don't think they do. I think that every very time somebody is talking to Willem, it was somebody interrupting his reverie or disturbing something or intervening in some way. All these scenes were being filmed, they were talking to the camera, they weren't talking to another actor.

Actors will talk about how they get something, I mean, Chris Walken and Dennis Hopper talked about how they would dance together doing a scene in True Romance. These people are bringing whatever is going on inside of them and just talking to the camera. Everyone of these guys, and if there were some women here, I'd say everyone of the people. But Emmanuelle Seigner is not sitting here.

I don't know, it's sort of like you're sitting in a jewellery box and these big heads are staring and looking at you. I felt like the portraits were talking and landscapes were and I guess there's never any music when people are talking. But you wanted Rupert to answer your question!

Kent Jones: There's a lot more to talk about but we actually have to wrap it up.

CBS Films to release At Eternity's Gate in the US on November 16.

The 2018 New York Film Festival runs through October 14.

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