We lose too soon, and only find delight
In withered husks of some dead memory.
- Oscar Wilde, Désespoir.
Besides being exact contemporaries who were born and died prematurely within a year of each other, Oscar Wilde and Vincent van Gogh shared the cautionary experience of being outcast and repudiated in their brief lifetimes. They were both arrogant and self-obsessed artistic geniuses, who found themselves shunned by polite society, ostracised by their peers, and locked up in institutions for lengthy periods of time. Both artists were also intensely conflicted over the issues of damnation and redemption. Although Wilde initially enjoyed great success with his stage plays and was the toast of the town for several theatrical seasons, his fall from grace was spectacularly fast after being incarcerated in Reading Goal. Van Gogh never enjoyed the same degree of public acclaim, despite pontificating that "I am the Holy Spirit." He imagined himself as a Christ-like figure, an under-appreciated and misunderstood artist who painted his pictures “for people who aren't born yet.” Plagued by depression and a series of mental breakdowns, during one of which he famously cut off his left ear, he died from a self-inflicted bullet wound a few weeks after leaving the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum, a former monastery in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where he had spent the final year of his life.
Rupert Everett endured a titanic, Wellesian struggle to secure the financing for his film about Wilde. Despite Peter Bradshaw's observation that “it is a part he was born to play, and he does it with exactly the right kind of poignantly ruined magnificence,” it took ten years to get his screenplay into production, during which time he rejected many other roles in order to remain available if the project was ever green-lit. Fortunately, Everett obtained written promises from Colin Firth and Emily Watson to participate in the project if he ever managed to find sufficient funding. Even when Firth's busy schedule made it unclear whether he would be able to keep his promise, Everett convinced other members of his stellar cast to participate by announcing that his friends had already signed on. Firth and Everett worked together in Another Country (1984) and a film version of The Importance of Being Earnest (2002). Firth later assumed the role of Lord Henry Wotton in the adaptation of Dorian Gray (2009), while Tom Wilkinson appeared as the father of Lord Alfred Douglas in Wilde (1997), an earlier biopic directed by Stephen Frears. Everett also played Wilde on stage in a revival of David Hare's play The Judas Kiss, which covers a similar time span to the movie and ran from September 2012 to April 2013 in London's West End, before touring the UK, Dublin, Toronto, and New York.
Principal photography finally began in September 2016 in Bavaria, where the interiors of Wilde's Naples residence were shot in Castle Thurnau, and continued in France, Belgium, and Italy. In the first week of shooting, Everett shaved his head in order to film the moment when Wilde gets shorn after arriving in Reading Gaol and therefore wore a wig for the rest of the production. The movie premiered last year at the Sundance Film Festival and was featured at the BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival, but despite garnering excellent reviews in the UK as "a masterpiece," "a magnificent achievement," and "a powerful parable of passion and redemption," it was ignored by major distributors, and is only now being shown in smaller art-house venues.
Everett starts his story in Paris, where Wilde is living under the spurious pseudonym of Sebastian Melmoth, having endured the “self-inflicted wounds of a gluttonous slob.” In a fit of pique, he has petulantly sued the Marquis of Queensberry for libel and, rather than flee the country, ends up serving eight hundred days of hard labour for moral indecency. He vacillates ruefully between reconciling with his long-suffering wife Constance or running away to Italy with his manipulative toyboy Lord Alfred Douglas (affectionately known to his few admirers as Bosie). Tormented by a host of inner demons, he surrenders to his worst impulses and his health starts to suffer as a result. Intercutting Wilde’s salad days with his initial wary optimism on first arriving in France, the film depicts his descent into sickness and squalor as he succumbs to the delayed shock of his experience in prison and is reviled in public by expatriate Brits.
The allegorical impact of the nursery story that supplies the film's title is somewhat diluted by the splintered narrative which jumps back and forth between the giddy heights of Wilde's early success and his subsequent ignominy and shame. Although Wilde attracts and discards such loyal supporters as Robbie Ross and Reggie Turner with nonchalant ingratitude, Everett imagines him befriending a Parisian rent boy and his tough kid brother, whimsically holding them spellbound with the power of an apparently simple 'fairy' tale. In better times, he would recite to his equally entranced children the same bed-time yarn of the statue of a prince who allows a swallow to strip away his gold leaves and emerald eyes in order to feed the indigent. Everett suggests the narrative of the prince who makes the belated discovery that love is the only lasting value is an ambiguous parable about Wilde’s personal passions and possible redemption.
previous movies about Wilde have deliberately avoided
focusing on his tragic decline. Frears ended on a chastely
sentimental embrace with Bosie in Naples, while Ken
Hughes’ The Trials of Oscar Wilde showed him coolly
dismissing his catamite on a railway station platform before
heading off to an unimaginable future. As in both those
films, Everett supplies the famous lines from The Ballad
of Reading Gaol in voiceover - “Each man kills the
thing he loves” - but then continues to guide us
unflinchingly through the subsequent horrors of his rapid
and humiliating downward spiral. Wilde does his best to
brazen out his despair with gallows humour, puking up beside
a portrait of Queen Victoria on his deathbed after
declaiming “encore du champagne,” but it is an
ignominious coda to a glittering career that ended with his
death in 1900 at the age of forty-six. As an Anglo-Irishman
at the tail end of the Victorian century, Wilde was spurned
not only for his life-long sympathy towards the destitute,
but also his unapologetic conviction that only a
compassionate form of socialism could rectify the
hypocritical discrimination he personally experienced at the
hands of the ossified and class-ridden power structure of
Julian Schnabel's vision of Vincent van Gogh's life and work is entitled At Eternity's Gate and, like Everett, he concentrates on the final months of his subject's life, in which van Gogh managed to knock out seventy-five canvases in eighty days. His letters during this period to Theo (his younger brother and main financial supporter) suggest it was a time of richly fertile creativity in which he experienced joy, elation, and gratitude in equal measure, despite his past suffering. Shot on location in the rural countryside surrounding Arles, Bouches de Rhone, and Avers-sur-Oise that has hardly changed since the early nineteenth century, Schnabel's nuanced assessment of Van Gogh's legacy premiered at the Venice Film Festival, winning Willem Dafoe the Volpi Cup for Best Actor. Easily as famous as the works of Pablo Picasso (but only now commanding similarly absurd prices), van Gogh's paintings exhibit neurotic symptoms that are the polar opposite of the Spaniard's controlled misogyny. The misleading Romantic legend of artistic creativity as a species of divine madness was reincarnated in his life, including a fraught relationship with his family that was as difficult in its own way as Wilde's. Anthony Lane has described the overall effect of the film, from the opening handheld shot that settles on a bucolic shepherdess and her flock to its final solar yellow screen, as a "a kind of neurotic pastoral."
Born one year before Wilde in 1853 near the border between Belgian and the Netherlands, van Gogh was the son of a Dutch Reformed Church minister and remained fiercely devout throughout his life, at times even trying to follow his father into the church. One year earlier to the day, his mother had given birth to another Vincent, but he died soon afterwards. Van Gogh always felt like a poor imitation who could never measure up, and his early years reveal a pattern of unfulfilled ambitions, aborted romantic flings, and unfinished financial schemes. He was hired and fired by a firm of international art dealers, while Theo went on to enjoy a highly successful career in the same profession. Van Gogh visited England and taught for a while as a supply teacher at a small boarding school in Ramsgate, then worked in a bookstore. After being rejected to join the ministry, he begged for any post that would allow him to answer his vocation, and in 1879 was dispatched to an economically depressed mining area in Belgium as a lay preacher. To show support for his impoverished congregation, he gave up his comfortable lodgings at a bakery to a homeless person and moved to a small hut where he slept on straw. His squalid domestic conditions did not endear him to church authorities, who dismissed him for "undermining the dignity of the priesthood.” He later shared a house with his pal Paul Gauguin for two tumultuous months in Arles, living there from February 1888 until May 1889. Although it is now home to the Vincent van Gogh foundation, a petition was raised by the townsfolk at the time, complaining about his strange behaviour and requesting that he be interned for his own safety.
Every experience in van Gogh's life seems like part of a grinding endurance test or obstacle course, from the desolate countryside where he preached and the routine drudgery of its inhabitants, to the physical symptoms of his distressed enteric nervous system, dicky ticker, and disturbed mind. This ceaseless sense of struggle is reflected not only in the murky monochromes of his early canvases, but also his ongoing battle to capture the brilliant colours that overwhelmed him once he flew south. His final years were blighted by debilitating fits and seizures that have been variously attributed to epilepsy, syphilis, and schizophrenia. It was generally accepted that he shot himself until Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith published Van Gogh: The Life, which suggested he may have been killed in error, jest, or anger, by a reckless teenager with Wild West fantasies who carried an old revolver around for show. Despite being generally rejected by most scholars, Schnabel seems to have swallowed this theory whole - although the resulting scene is shot so obliquely that audiences could be forgiven for remaining mystified.
An accomplished painter himself, Schnabel brings not only a first-hand awareness of the technical demands of the medium, but also personal experience of the elusive nature of commercial success. He nicely sets up an early scene in which van Gogh is berated for covering a bistro wall with unsellable paintings. Although he only managed to sell one painting during his entire lifetime, contemporary audiences can imagine we would have snapped them up, arranged therapeutic treatment for his deranged brain, and maybe even surgically removed the lethal bullet ourselves. In fact, most of us would have done our utmost to avoid van Gogh like the unpleasant prig he was, either ignoring him completely or taking offense at his insults, just as his contemporaries did. He was clearly a deeply tortured soul who compared fame to “sticking your cigar in your mouth by the lighted end” and whose sexual entanglements were tinged with menace. One of the witnesses in the Arles petition claimed he was “given to touching the women of the neighbourhood, whom he follows right into their homes,” and in a moment of shocking candour he admitted to his Gauguin that “I always have an animal’s coarse appetites.” A disturbing sequence occurs towards the end of the film, when the rustic shepherdess whom he first wanted to sketch at the start of the movie reappears. This time around, the suggestion is that van Gogh ravishes her.
A number films have been based on van Gogh's life in the past, with varying degrees of success. Alain Resnais' 1948 documentary won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject, while Vincent Minelli's clunky Lust for Life (1956), with Kirk Douglas chewing the scenery, and Robert Altman's more nuanced Vincent & Theo (1990) starring Tim Roth both tried to dramatise the inherent contradictions of his career. Paul Cox' Vincent (1987) was a ravishing documentary, illustrated with a plethora of paintings and drawings and blessed with John Hurt's throaty delivery of passages from van Gogh's letters. Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh (1991) supplied perhaps the most accurate version of the artist's life, with the added advantage of fairly accurately depicting painting as a form of forced labour. Akira Kurosawa conjured up the most entertaining apparition of van Gogh in Dreams (1990), whose stunned protagonist is magically conveyed through a series of enchanted landscapes that bear an uncanny resemblance to the artist's paintings. As he plods in amazement through a number of dizzying oneiric perspectives, he stumbles across the artist himself, replete with straw hat and gauze bandage, feverishly sketching a field of haystacks. Hidden beneath this brazen disguise are the bushy eyebrows of Martin Scorsese, though precisely how this New York wiseguy has managed to materialise in nineteenth-century Provence remains a perplexing mystery.
To establish a more authentic sense of tone and setting, Schnabel films his opening scene in French, but since neither Dafoe nor Schnabel speak the language fluently the rest of the dialogue switches into wierdly accented English, and only shifts back to French in scenes where Van Gogh feels threatened, such as when he is surrounded by schoolchildren. Van Gogh himself was often mocked for his poor French and using French dialogue in these scenes heightens his feeling of alienation from those around him. Despite being almost twice as old as Van Gogh when he died, Dafoe's toothy grin, sunken cheeks, cropped hair, and rasping voice perfectly capture what the tormented painter himself described as “the élan of my bony carcass.” Rarely a relaxed performer, Dafoe nevertheless treads gingerly in the wooden sabots of Tim Roth and deftly avoids indulging in the excess of Kirk Douglas' performance, a method which Lane describes with amusing accuracy as "maximum clench."
An actor of great instinctive versatility, Dafoe's career has ranged from participating in the Spiderman franchise to portraying Jesus in Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ, a troubled Vietnam vet in Oliver Stone's Platoon, and three disturbing movies directed by Lars Von Trier. In a recent interview with James Croot, he suggested that Schnabel's film is essentially about “new ways of seeing. Everybody is interested in that, trying to achieve that - whether it's through hobbies, sex, smoking weed, or dropping acid and going to see Fantasia. We are all trying to see deeper and I think this movie really introduces the possibility of seeing things in new ways, with van Gogh and his paintings as our guide … it concentrates on the joyful and positive aspects of his life, not just the go-to portrait of him as a depressed, tortured artist who is misunderstood."
Van Gogh himself suggested that “the painter of the future is a colourist such as there hasn’t been before.” Like the life he lead, whether through choice or compulsion, past cinematic depictions of van Gogh have been troubled and difficult. The essential problem is that the medium of film has been reduced to a flat digital field, no longer capable of delivering the slightest nuance of texture. Unlike a framed canvas, monochrome silver nitrate stock, or even rolls of 35mm Technicolor celluloid, it is all pristine surface with no possible furrows of pigment or layered ridges of oil paint, and relatively little depth of field. Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme certainly does his best, allowing his blurry hand-held camerawork to veer in out of focus to sometimes distracting effect, but a mere movie will never be able to duplicate van Gogh's writhing olive trees, shimmering wheatfields, and hallucinogenic sunflowers. For that experience, we will always be forced to brave the hordes and visit a museum.