Auteur of the Week: Julian Schnabel

Julian Schnabel only has three films to his name (with a fourth coming later this year), but all three films are both visual and visceral masterpieces. Coming from a fine art background, Schnabel has made three of the best, most visually stunning biopics in the last fifteen years. Schnabel’s films are kind of like his art, they’re bold and they’re colorful and they’re a mixture of all sorts of things and in the end they are celebrations of life itself.

What I love so much about his films is partly the subjects that he decides to make films about. He tells the story of outstanding creative men who thrive under adversary. Now that kind of subject matter could be really boring, and often is, but somehow Schnabel’s films transcend your typical biopic into the realm of true art. He collaborates with some of the most artistic people working in the industry today, to create films filled with lush imagery, sets and cinematography.

Schnabel was born in Brooklyn, New York City but his family moved to Brownsville, Texas when young. He got his B.F.A. at the University of Houston. He then sent an application to the independent study program at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. In his application he sent slides of his work sandwiched between two pieces of bread. He was admitted into the program. In 1975, Schnabel had his first solo show at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. He then traveled to Europe often, where he was impressed by the work of Antoni Gaudi, Cy Twombly and Joseph Beuys. He had his first solo show at the Mary Boone Gallery in 1979. It was after this show that he began to be regarded as a major new force in the art world. He then participated at the Venice Biennale in 1980 and by the mid-1980s had become a major figure in the Neo-expressionism movement. He is currently represented by The Pace Gallery in New York. Although he is currently more known for his films, he has said, “painting is like breathing to me. It’s what I do all the time. Every day I make art, whether it is painting, writing or making a movie.”

Schnabel’s directorial debut was a biopic of fellow painted Jean-Michel Basquiat. Apparently Basquiat’s estate would not grant permission for his work to be used in the film, so Schnabel and his studio assistant Greg Bogan created paintings in the style of Basquiat for the film. The film got mixed reviews, but Schnabel received special recognition for the National Board of Review for “Special Achievement in Filmmaking.” Benicio Del Toro won Best Supporting Male at the Independent Spirit Awards and Jeffrey Wright was nominated for Best Debut Performance. Schnabel was also nominated for the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival.

I thought Jeffrey Wright was particularly fabulous in this film. I actually don’t know too much about the real Basquiat, but I thought Wright’s performance was a perfect combination of passion, anxiety and ego. I read however, that Wright was not very happy with Schnabel’s interpretation of Basquiat the character, stating, “Julian made him out to be too docile and too much of a victim and too passive and not as dangerous as he really was. It’s about containing Basquiat. It’s about aggrandizing himself through Basquiat’s memory.”

I loved the supporting cast of this film. Benicio Del Toro and Gary Oldman both give really refined, subtle performances. You can see how Benicio got from this role to his Oscar-winning turn in Traffic a few years later. As for Oldman, it’s definitely one of his less showy performances, but I thought it was one of his most fully realized. David Bowie as Andy Warhol practically steals every scene he’s in. I think he got Warhol down pat. My favorite performance in the film, though, was Michael Wincott as Rene Richard. I don’t think I’d ever noticed Wincott in a film before, but after watching this film I discovered I’d seen him in several films and never noticed. He’s definitely one of the most brilliant, yet completely underused actors working in Hollywood today.

Schnabel’s next film was an adaptation of the autobiography of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. It was much better received than Schnabel’s debut film, appearing on multiple critic top ten lists and garnered multiple awards for both Schnabel as a director and Javier Bardem’s performance as Arenas. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival where Schnabel was nominated Golden Lion, as well as winning a Grand Special Jury Prize, OCIC Award – Honorable Mention, the Rota Soundtrack Award for Carter Burwell’s score and Volpi Cup for Best Actor – Javier Bardem. It was also nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards, winning one for Best Male – Javier Bardem. Bardem also won the Best Actor award from the National Board of Review, Premios ACE and the National Society of Film Critics, as well as being nominated for five other awards – including Best Actor at the Academy Awards.

The role of Reinaldo Arenas could not have been an easy one to play, his life was such an intense series of ups and downs, and I think that is why Bardem’s performance is so phenomenal. This was maybe the most at ease with a character I’ve ever seen Bardem be, performing both in English and Spanish, on-screen and as the film’s narrator. I’ll confess Arenas was another person I’d never heard of before this film, and maybe that was so for a lot of people who saw the film. I’d like to think that by making these films about these amazing people, Schnabel is introducing audiences to them through a much more widely accessible medium. I would also like to think that people would then search out Arenas’ memoir and novels (I know I intend to) to get to known his work for themselves.

The film, like Basquiat, had a wonderful supporting cast. My two favorites were Johnny Depp as Bon-Bon and Michael Wincott as Herberto Zorilla Ochoa. Both are only on-screen for a short while, but they make an astounding impact with the little time they are given. I’m going to have to thank Schnabel for introducing me to Wincott, whose work I intend to investigate throughly now.

I remember when I first read that this film was being made, I was still in high school I believe and Johnny Depp was supposed to play the lead. I read that according to Ronald Harwood, the choice of Schnabel as director was recommended by Depp. Before the production got off the ground Universal Pictures withdrew and two years later Pathé took up the project, however by then Depp had to drop the project due to scheduling conflicts with the third Pirates movie. One story has it that Schnabel insisted that the movie should be in French, believing that the rich language of the book would work better in the original French; he even learned French in order to make the film in the language. However, screenwriter Harwood said, “Pathé wanted to make the movie in both English and French, which is why bilingual actors were cast. Everyone secretly knew that two versions would be impossibly expensive.” Whatever the reason was, I’m glad they made the film in French. I’m also sort of glad they cast Mathieu Amalric as Bauby instead of Depp. I feel that by having a lesser known actor in the role, the story was the main showpiece of the film, not the actor as it would have been with Depp in the lead. The film was by and far his best received to date. It is my favorite of his three films, as well as one of my favorite of all time. It ended up on over 30 top ten lists, landing on the #1 spot on nine lists. It was also nominated for numerous awards. It won six awards for Best Foreign Language Film, including at the Golden Globes and Schnabel won four awards as Best Director, including at the Cannes Film Festival and at the Golden Globes. He was nominated for Best Director at the DGA and then film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing. I really do not understand how Janusz Kamiński’s brilliant cinematography lost. As much as I loved Robert Elswit’s work on There Will Be Blood, there is just no comparison. I couldn’t pick screencaps to represent Kamiński’s work because the beauty of his work is how fluid and ocular the cinematography is, if that even makes any sense. It’s really something that needs to be seen how it was intended to be seen, as a motion picture, to fully be appreciated.

I really loved Mathieu Amalric in this film. His narration is positively brilliant and the rest of his performance is almost completely done with his eyes, even in the scenes that take place prior to Bauby becoming paralyzed.


Like his previous film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly has an amazing ensemble cast. Although, for the most part, the supporting characters only appear for a short period of time, each one of them is exquisite. Emmanuelle Seigner is so luminous as Céline Desmoulins, the mother of Bauby’s children. She loves him, even if he doesn’t anymore, and her unshakable devotion is amazing. Marie-Josée Croze is equally great as Bauby’s speech therapist Henriette Durand. I love her determination to not give up on Bauby’s case and thus inspire Bauby to not give up on himself. Max von Sydow gives a particularly heartbreaking performance as Bauby’s elderly father. It’s a joy to see him still giving great performances 50 years into his career. Lastly, I wanted to talk about Niels Arestrup’s brief performance. I think he’s only on-screen for about three minutes, five at the most, but it’s his performance I remember the most from the film and it’s his performance I look forward to every time I re-watch this film. He’s grave and he’s somber, but he’s also full of kindness and forgiveness and strength. Absolutely phenomenal.

Schnabel’s latest film Miral, is set to have its debut on September 3rd at the Venice Film Festival. It’s an adaptation of Rula Jebrea’s novel about a real-life woman, Hind Husseini, and her effort to establish an orphanage in Jerusalem after the 1948 partition of Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel. It’s stars Hiam Abbass as Husseini and Freida Pinto as the titular Miral. It also co-stars Vanessa Redgrave and Willem Dafoe, who had a cameo in Schnabel’s Basquiat. The film was shot entirely in Israel and is set for a limited release in the United States on December 3rd. I am most definitely looking forward to this film and am sure it will be just as much a work of art as his previous three films.

If you’re interested in buying any of Schnabel’s films you can do so here.

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About cinemafanatic

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on August 31, 2010, in Auteur of the Week and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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