Far from a biopic, this portrait of Van Gogh, anchored by a shattering, career-defining turn from Willem Dafoe, flouts the usual narrative conventions. Schnabel’s film is not so much about the artist as a journey into his inner being, so we experience the world in much the same blissed-out, tormented and chaotic way he himself did.
Drawing heavily on the trove of letters Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, the film opens with the artist reeling from the scornful reception of a show of his paintings in a dingy Paris restaurant. “Go south,” his friend Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) advises. Van Gogh relocates to Arles in southern Provence, setting up shop in a bare-bones, chilly room, where he immediately takes brush to canvas to memorialize his worn shoes set by the bed (familiar from the painting). Roaming the countryside, wooden easel strapped to his back, Van Gogh enters a furiously productive period. Continue reading.