It was near the end of a long day of shooting, and cast and crew were packing up. Then Julian Schnabel, painter and the director of the new Vincent van Gogh film At Eternity's Gate, realized the twilight was perfect. He had an idea for his star, Willem Dafoe: "Let's go paint in the field."
The resulting scene is among the most vivid in Eternity's Gate, a tactile meditation that seems to take place inside van Gogh's mind and creative soul. Dafoe runs through an autumnal field, stops, and lays on his pack. He closes his eyes, grabs a handful of dirt and sprinkles it on his face. His face is filled with that beatific Dafoe smile.
"It wasn't premeditated, and it didn't seem particularly significant," Dafoe says by phone. "But when it's placed in the movie, you somehow get an appreciation of van Gogh's link with nature, the link of nature to God, and painting to nature to God. I think that scene is very much about the contemplation of that relationship."
Van Gogh has been the subject of several films, including Lust for Life, starring Kirk Douglas; Vincent and Theo, with Tim Roth; and the stunningly animated Loving Vincent, which came out just last year. But none of those films can match the probing of the painter's spirituality that we find in Eternity's Gate, which takes place during the final years of his short life. "God is nature, and nature is beauty," van Gogh says in the film, echoing the words from which Keats concluded his "Ode on a Grecian Urn": "Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
Van Gogh, of course, was also a tortured figure. He cut off his ear (the movie subscribes to the theory that he did it for Paul Gauguin, with whom he had a tempestuous friendship). He heard voices and had dark visions — today it is widely believed that he suffered from schizophrenia — and he was a social pariah. He did time in hospitals and asylums.
Van Gogh's trials have been well chronicled, and Dafoe was well aware he was playing a tormented artist. But he was also drawn to the ecstasy van Gogh felt when he was close to nature, and, therefore, to God. You see it in the dirt scene, and you feel it when Dafoe burns with extra intensity as he paints his surroundings, the starry nights and wheat fields. Dafoe, who played a conflicted Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, has a unique ability to convey agony and ecstasy within the same moment. This is among the defining traits of his van Gogh.
"He's not just a person unbalanced," Dafoe says. "This movie expresses his joy, too, and his productivity, and the fact that one of the most difficult things was to reconcile that joy with his awkwardness in daily life. How do you sustain that wakefulness, that strong sense that he felt in contact with a higher power through his painting? How do you sustain that? That's something we can all relate to, right?"