Julian Schnabel, though principally a painter, released his first film in 1996, the year I was born, and since then has released just three further films, all unified by their common theme of an artist struggling to create art in the face of oppressive circumstances. Suffering under the weight of addiction, fascism, disability, poverty, or mental illness yet still keeping their flame of creativity alight. So the subject of Van Gogh, often touched on before in cinema, whether in the Kirk Douglas biopic, Lust for Life, last year’s extraordinary “painted movie” Loving Vincent or Akira Kurosawa’s enraptured tribute in which Van Gogh was played by director Martin Scorsese, seemed an inevitable fit for his return to filmmaking after an eleven year absence, his previous film The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly, being in my opinion, the best film there is. This film, in contrast, is more of a flawed masterpiece, fumbling as it does the events surrounding the artist's death, however, it contains moments of such sombre reflection, tragedy and real beauty that I regularly found myself crying at the sheer perfection of the scene onscreen.
As might be expected from Schnabel this is not a conventional biopic, painting instead of a scattershot portrait of moments and ideas, the film unfolding in a series of tableau of Van Gogh painting or intimate personal dialogues with his friends and family about his state of mental health and legacy. Van Gogh is played by Willem Dafoe, who previously collaborated with Schnabel in Basquiat, here bringing the same devastating humanity that he brought to his role in The Last Temptation of Christ, to which this film plays wry homage in one scene, and he plays out his dialogues opposite fellow Schnabel alums from Diving-Bell; Anne Cosigny, Mathieu Amalric, Niels Arestrup and Emmanuelle Seigner, as well as Rupert Friend as Vincent’s loving brother Theo, Mads Mikkelsen as an amusingly sceptical priest and Oscar Isaac as Paul Gaugin, all of whom perform their introspective dialogues with a finely tuned eloquence.
Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme finds a way, in photography, to capture Van Gogh’s fractured, impossibly sincere, unpolished style, exploiting light and colour with a skill most films leave to painters. As with Diving-Bell, there is much use of point of view shots, the lower half of the frame regularly blurred as if the movie itself were perpetually on the edge of tears, and when we do not see through Van Gogh’s eyed directly, Delhomme’s camera inspects Dafoe’s vulnerable face with a fragile detail that somehow never becomes intrusive. Despite its stylistic contiguousness with Diving-Bell, I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a film shot quite like this, it’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen. It is not a grand film, it has no pretensions to be the first film made about Van Gogh, nor aspirations to be the last, rather it offers a humble personal vision like no one else could have.