By Stefania Fumo
VENICE, Italy, Sept. 3 (Xinhua) -- American director Julian Schnabel's tribute to legendary painter Vincent van Gogh, titled At Eternity's Gate and starring iconic actor Willem Dafoe, premiered in competition at the Venice Film Festival on Monday.
Largely shot with a handheld camera, using first-person POV and extreme close-ups alternating with wide shots of the protagonist immersed in the landscapes of southern France, the movie tells the story of the last days of the great Dutch painter, who died in 1890 at the age of 37 after being shunned and misunderstood for most of his life.
Van Gogh is known for his use of intense colors and thick, fierce, churning brushstrokes that transformed his subject matter -- flowers, landscapes, people -- into a new vision that revolutionized 20th-century Western art.
Dafoe took one-on-one painting lessons from Schnabel, who was a successful artist before turning to filmmaking, in preparation for the role.
"This is a movie as much about painting as it is about Van Gogh, so a big part of the process for me was learning how to paint -- and even more so, learning how to see," Dafoe explained.
"I learned about how to touch a canvas, how to approach color, how to strategize and how to abandon strategies," said the actor, a three-time Oscar nominee who has appeared in over 100 films directed by the likes of Kathryn Bigelow, David Lynch, Werner Herzog, Spike Lee, Wim Wenders, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, and Zhang Yimou, to name just a few.
"Most of all, I learned that painting is a combination of inspiration, impulse, technique, training -- and then letting go of training," said Dafoe, who along with Schnabel received an ovation at the press conference for the movie in Venice.
The film pursues the act of creation -- the magic that travels from the painter's eye, to his mind, to the canvas. A key element is the evocative piano-based score by Kazakhstan-born musician, visual artist, performer, and model Tatiana Lisovskaya.
"Tatiana created original music that takes you into the sound in Van Gogh's head," said Schnabel, who made his directorial debut in 1996 with a hit film about Haitian-American graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who skyrocketed to fame before dying prematurely at age 22.
That movie, titled Basquiat, was the first-ever commercial film about a painter directed by a painter, and was nominated for a Golden Lion at Venice.
"If you ask me to explain (At Eternity's Gate), I would say it's impossible," Schnabel continued. "We tried to make an equivalent to a feeling you may get while observing a work of art."
At Eternity's Gate was shot by Benoit Delhomme, who won the Camera d'Or at Cannes for his work with Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung, and was written by Jean-Claude Carriere, himself a cinematic legend known for his 19-year collaboration with Luis Bunuel and winner in 2014 of an honorary Academy Award for his body of work as a screenwriter.
This movie is a feast for the eye and mind of all lovers of art, of painting, of cinema, and of Van Gogh. As Schnabel has said: "The only way to describe a work of art is to make a work of art."
The Venice Film Festival, now in its 75th edition, ends on Sept. 8.