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Willem Dafoe on why 'At Eternity's Gate' offers dramatically different version of Vincent Van Gogh's death

·Producer, Yahoo Entertainment
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Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate might star Willem Dafoe in a brilliant portrait of Vincent Van Gogh, but the new film is hardly a traditional biopic. There are no montages or standing ovations. There are no hints of Van Gogh’s prodigious talents as a child. And even the conventional wisdom of the artist not being respected in his lifetime is undercut in a stirring sequence in which a rave review by renowned French art critic Albert Aurier, published during Van Gogh’s lifetime, is read aloud.

“I mean this movie doesn’t even try to account for Van Gogh,” Dafoe said during a recent interview with Yahoo Entertainment. “It’s very much about painting more than trying to account or give a psychological profile of who we think this guy was. … It’s a film about a painter made by a painter [i.e., Schnabel], and it’s very much about being an artist and about painting and about creative process. The guy happens to be Vincent Van Gogh.”

Viewers might be surprised by the version of Van Gogh presented onscreen, which deviates from the version presented in traditional biographies and Hollywood’s previous film treatment, 1956’s Lust for Life starring Kirk Douglas. Here are five major ways At Eternity’s Gate presents a Van Gogh you didn’t know.

Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh in Julian Schnabel’s <i>At Eternity’s Gate</i>. (Photo: Lily Gavin)
Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh in Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate. (Photo: Lily Gavin)

Van Gogh might not have died by suicide

Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s 2011 biography Van Gogh: The Life, written in cooperation with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, made waves when it theorized that Van Gogh had not died from a self-inflicted gunshot. The long-standing theory had been that Van Gogh had died days after shooting himself in the stomach. Naifeh and White Smith theorized that Van Gogh died at the hands of René Secrétan or one of his friends. Secrétan was a local youth who dressed like Buffalo Bill, reportedly had access to a gun and often bullied Van Gogh. When Schnabel first started talking to Dafoe about At Eternity’s Gate, he gave Dafoe that book to read.

“I think I was like most people, I thought he suicided, but there are certain things that question that,” Dafoe said. “Simple things, like if you want to kill yourself, why do you shoot yourself in the stomach and then walk a long way home and suffer for three hours to die? Why do you, on the day of the shooting, whether it was self-inflicted or by someone else, why do you write a very optimistic letter to your brother [expressing] a restored energy and optimism … about his career and about his work and how he’s feeling? Why? … Where did his painting supplies go? They disappeared. Where’d his paint go?

“Where did he get a gun?” Dafoe questioned further. “This is a rural area. People are very conscious of him. It’s not like you can go around the corner and, you know, hook up with the local gangster and he can get you a gun.

“There are many questions,” Dafoe concluded before cautioning, “I mean, those are just a few, but that’s not what the movie is about.”

Van Gogh didn’t want people to fixate on his self-mutilation

About a year before his death, Van Gogh cut off part of his ear in remorse after threatening his friend Paul Gauguin with a razor, resulting in the indelible image of the artist with a bandage around his head. Perhaps in an effort to delude others or even himself, Van Gogh tried passing off his self-mutilation as insignificant.

With that in mind, Dafoe said he and Schnabel didn’t have any detailed discussions on how to portray the infamous moment.

“We didn’t talk too much about it,” Dafoe shared. “We didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. Van Gogh himself called it a ‘trifle.’ … It wasn’t a big deal to him. That’s certainly one of the things he’s remembered for. It almost eclipses, you know, people’s talking about his paintings. … It’s not clear how much was cut off. Some people say just a little bit. Some people say the whole ear. But the main thing is that that wasn’t really what the movie is about, those aspects of his life. So we deal with it but … you don’t see it happen. At a certain point, he’s just wearing a bandage.”

Van Gogh (1853-1890) painted <em>Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (</em>1889) after a quarrel with fellow artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) at Arles, during which he threatened Gauguin with a razor. In remorse, he cut off part of his own ear. (Photo: Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Van Gogh (1853-1890) painted Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889) after a quarrel with fellow artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) at Arles, during which he threatened Gauguin with a razor. In remorse, he cut off part of his own ear. (Photo: Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Van Gogh was deeply religious

Before becoming a full-time (and impoverished) artist, a 25-year-old Van Gogh attempted to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a pastor. Despite efforts to win over both townspeople and clergy alike, he was deemed unfit for the profession and moved on to art at the suggestion of his brother Theo. Dafoe told us he was surprised to learn about this.

“[I was surprised] with how obsessed he was with being of service and how he really felt like it was through nature that he could contact God,” Dafoe shared. “And that was a huge concern for him. He grew up in a very religious environment, his father was a pastor. And early in his life he tried to be a man of religion. It didn’t work out, but that colors a lot of what he writes about.”

Van Gogh probably owes his fame to his sister-in-law

Perhaps Van Gogh’s greatest supporter was his beloved brother Theo. Aside from being a fan of Vincent’s work, Theo floated his older brother money. Theo was a renowned art dealer with connections to the likes of Paul Cézanne and Georges Seurat.

Theo died shortly after his brother. But if Vincent’s well-connected champion died so soon after him, what led to his enduring popularity? It’s due to the efforts of Theo’s widow and Vincent’s sister-in-law, Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger. “Johanna is really the one that started to sell the paintings and started to establish Van Gogh’s legacy,” said Dafoe.

The graves of Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo rest side-by-side in Auvers-sur-Oise, France. Theo’s widow, Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger, helped Vincent achieve fame after death. (Photo: Marc Deville/Getty Images)
The graves of Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo rest side-by-side in Auvers-sur-Oise, France. Theo’s widow, Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger, helped Vincent achieve fame after death. (Photo: Marc Deville/Getty Images)

Van Gogh possibly had a speech impediment

In At Eternity’s Gate, Dafoe elected to not attempt an accent, saying it wouldn’t have “made sense” for him to try to emulate the artist’s distinctive speech. “He had a very particular accent,” Dafoe explained. “From what I’ve read in biographies, he had something of a little bit of a speech impediment. They made fun of him.”

In the 2016 book Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story, historian Bernadette Murphy wrote that because he lost 10 teeth, he had a slight speech impediment. That combined with a tendency to speak quickly and his heavy Dutch accent rendered him difficult to understand.

With Dafoe using his normal accent, he also used the Americanized pronunciation of Van Gogh in the movie instead of how it would be pronounced in the artist’s native Netherlands.

“Basically the language of film was English,” Dafoe said. “There’s some French, the sequences that are in France. But the convention is when we’re in Paris, it’s a French world but when we’re in the more rural areas it’s a combination. It’s mostly English.”

At Eternity’s Gate is in theaters Friday. Watch an exclusive clip:

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