How many versions of the same story do we need? I saw Utøya 22.juli (U – July 22) at the Berlin Film Festival. The nerve-shredding thriller, directed by Erik Poppe, depicts a terrible chapter in Norway’s history, when a right-wing extremist set off bombs in the government offices in Oslo, then travelled to Utøya island, the location of the Norwegian Labour Party’s youth league summer camp, and opened indiscriminate fire. He killed 69 people and injured 200. I wrote, “Poppe wants to immerse us in these events. He recreates them with a you-are-there frisson, something familiar to us from films like United 93, which was about the events on the plane targeted at the White House on 9/11.” And now, at the Venice Film Festival, the latter film’s director, Paul Greengrass, is showing his own film about the Utøya tragedy.
I skipped 22 July, but I’m glad I caught At Eternity’s Gate, Julian Schnabel’s imagining of the last few years of the life of Vincent van Gogh (a magnetic Willem Dafoe). When I walked in, I wondered, again, “How many versions of this story do we need?” Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life gave the painter’s story the good, old-fashioned, Hollywood-biography treatment. For a less broad, more relationship-oriented take, we have Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo, and we even have what-if variations on van Gogh’s life, like the fully animated Loving Vincent. Tortured artist. Had ginger hair. Painted. Was pals with Gauguin. Cut off an ear. What else is there? An early scene in Schnabel’s film is set in an inn, where an artists’ community is setting up rules. If someone sells a painting, 20 percent of the proceeds will go to the community. And those who don’t sell paintings will help out in other ways, like cooking or gardening. Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) finds it all ridiculous. He storms off, van Gogh on his tail. Already, the seeds of exceptionalism we expect in great-man biopics have been sown.
But slowly, the film finds its reason for being. A long stretch details the creation of (or the circumstances behind) van Gogh’s works like A Pair of Shoes and Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin. Schnabel does on film what the Post-Impressionists did on canvas. The fevered colours are mirrored by the feverish camerawork, with shivering frames. The multi-layered coats of paint (Gauguin tells van Gogh, “Your surface looks like it is made of clay. Looks more like a sculpture than a painting”) become overlapping voices and superimposed images. The Expressionistic distortions find an echo in the extreme close-ups, the heads of the speakers apparently dissociated from bodies. Schnabel uses blank screens with voiceovers. He blurs out the bottom of frames, leaving the impression of a watercolour being worked on. He goes far beyond merely showcasing an artist and his art. He creates an art installation about the insides of van Gogh’s head.
Gauguin asks van Gogh, “Why do you always paint from nature? Why don’t you just paint what’s in your mind, what your brain sees?” But that’s what van Gogh is already doing. His paintings of nature are what his brain sees. None of the earlier van Gogh films have shown us, with such devastating empathy, this artist’s oneness with nature. When van Gogh takes a walk, the camera (from his subjective viewpoint) looks down at his shoes squishing the grass. Later, he lies down and dribbles soil on his face, smiles, and starts to paint. It doesn’t appear sentimental. They say you can’t write a love story until you’ve truly loved. van Gogh wants to feel the things around him. Only then can he paint — even if no one else gets it. Kids gather around one of his paintings of gnarled roots (in blue!) and wonder if he’s going to paint the rest of the tree. What can he say?
How can he convince others that not everything needs to be explained, that sometimes it’s enough that things are just felt? Reading Shakespeare’s Richard III, van Gogh says he likes it that some of the lines aren’t clear. He likes the mystery. At least patrons of art films in festivals such as this one will agree with the sentiment. Plot-wise, Schnabel doesn’t do much. He reimagines the reason behind van Gogh’s death, and also makes a psychological enquiry into the ear-cutting. (Maybe van Gogh did not want to “hear” Gauguin’s words that he was leaving?) But At Eternity’s Gate is, at heart, a mood movie, about an artist who finally made peace with the fact that his real audience exists in the future, that time (in the sense of one’s lifespan) is meaningless when it comes to art. “I thought an artist has to teach a way to look at the rest of the world,” he says. “Not anymore. Now I just think of my relationship with eternity.”
Gonzalo Tobal’s Acusada (The Accused; Spanish) is a solid but unspectacular (given its Competition slot) courtroom drama, whose centerpiece is a cross-examination of the accused by a television anchor (Gael García Bernal) — it’s more about trial by media. Did 21-year-old Dolores Dreier (Lali Espósito) murder her best friend over a leaked sex video? The answer has less to do with sensational evidence and last-minute witnesses than how, as the director puts it, “a society [is] overwhelmed by new forms of communication and exposition that affect social and interpersonal relationships in a way that we are still unable to comprehend.” Dolores is impassive, giving away nothing. The ambiguity may be dramatically unsatisfying, but that is the point. We become the viewers of that television show. Guilty or innocent, it’s left to us to decide.
On the surface, Brady Corbet’s pop-star drama, Vox Lux, resembles A Star is Born: a singer (Celeste, played by Natalie Portman) is discovered and nurtured by a protective mentor (Jude Law), and so forth. But the films couldn’t be more different. Vox Lux has a grainy, home-video feel, and much bigger ambitions. The film opens with this voiceover: “Celeste was born in America in 1986.” Thereon, the protagonist is tied to her country, like when she becomes the victim of a school shooting. The year? 1999, which is when the Columbine school shooting happened. The incident leaves Celeste with a bullet lodged in her spine. Another metaphor? And what about the tattered American flag we see outside Celeste’s home?
The first hour or so of Vox Lux is brilliantly directed, with unusual rhythms and segues. You can see a point being made (say, loss of innocence, or the disturbing pervasiveness of pop music), but before you manage to crystallise it in words, it slips away. The meaning forms in your mind. But gradually, the focus shifts to interpersonal relationships that are not half as interesting — though it’s fun to see Portman in a ballsy, atypical role that requires her to “act big,” like Elizabeth Taylor in her Mother Earth/Bitch Goddess parts. “That’s what I like about pop music,” Celeste says, early on, when there’s still a little girl inside her. “I don’t want people to think too hard. I just want them to feel good.” But she changes, as does America — and feel-good is the last thing this thoughtful, enigmatic, disturbing film is.