Director: Julian Schnabel
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner
Runtime: 1 hr 52 mins
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 7 March 2019
Synopsis: In the villages of Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise where he has retreated to escape the pressures of Paris, Vincent (Academy Award nominee Willem Dafoe) is treated kindly by some and brutally by others. Madame Ginoux (Emmanuelle Seigner), the proprietor of the local restaurant, takes pity on his poverty and gives him a ledger, which he fills with drawings. Others are afraid of his dark mood swings. His close friend, fellow artist Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), finds him so overwhelming he slips away, and his beloved brother and art dealer Theo (Rupert Friend) is unwavering in his support, but never manages to sell a single painting of Vincent's.
When is Willem Dafoe going to win an Oscar?
After being a three time Best Supporting Actor nominee at the Academy Awards (Platoon, Shadow of the Vampire, The Florida Project), Dafoe has gotten his first Best Actor nomination for taking on the role of Vincent van Gogh. Eventually, it was Rami Malek who took home the prize for playing Freddie Mercury.
While playing van Gogh sounds like a huge challenge, nothing seems to faze Dafoe. Cinephiles can attest to how awesome the 63 year old is. The founding member of an experimental theatre company, the character actor has wowed us in countless films. From playing Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and portraying a sadomasochistic husband in Antichrist (2009) to becoming Green Goblin in Spider Man (2002) and Nuidis Vulko in Aquaman (2018), he has also done voiceover work in Finding Dory (2003) and Fantastic Mr Fox (2009). Is there nothing he can’t pull off?
In this biographical drama chronicles, we follow the Dutch Post Impressionist painter as he searches for inspiration. We see how his life is shaped by fellow artist Paul Gauguin (who is also unfortunately underappreciated until after his death), his brother Theo (an unfailing financial and emotional support), as well as several other characters who became the sources of his now famous paintings.
It is apt that this film about van Gogh is directed by Julian Schnabel (Miral), a filmmaker and painter well known for his large scale artworks set on broken ceramic plates. The film starts with a black screen and Dafoe’s haunting voiceover (incidentally, he also provided the narration for Vox Lux, Brady Corbet’s work about an artist struggling with her true self), and proceeds with an artistic approach with looking at life. Everything has a meaning, yet everything doesn’t. There are several existentialist moments where viewers will begin pondering whether social norm is the most important thing to pursue in life.
While it can be exhausting to sit through the 112 minute (not everyone may have the patience to appreciate van Gogh’s perspective on things), it is worth the effort just to be in awe of the first rate performances on display. Needless to say, Dafoe effortlessly pulls off a difficult role and audiences may end up empathising with the character. The camera loves the actor’s face – there are several close up shots exploring the well defined structure.
Elsewhere, Oscar Isaac (Life Itself) plays Gauguin with vigour, Rupert Friend (A Simple Favor) is convincing as a caring brother, while Mads Mikkelsen (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) lends weight with his bit role of a concerned priest. Mathieu Amalric (Quantum of Solace) and Emmanuelle Seigner (Based on a True Story), who have worked with Schnabel on The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), a critically acclaimed biography about how a man’s life changes after suffering from a massive stroke.
The stylistic drama is like a painting. While you may not fully appreciate everything on the canvas, there is a surrealistic sense of beauty. With every sequence, the film poses questions. What does it take to attain a peace of mind? Can being socially accepted and art go hand in hand? What is beyond eternity’s gate?
(Willem Dafoe is as compelling as ever in this film which gives us a glimpse of what might have happened during Vincent van Gogh’s last days)
Review by John Li