‘At Eternity’s Gate’ paints a memorable Van Gogh portrait
Directed by: Julian Schnabel
Written by: Julian Schnabel, Jean-Claude Carriere and Louis Kugelberg
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, and Mads Mikkelsen
“At Eternity’s Gate” – “When facing a flat landscape, I see nothing but eternity.” – Vincent Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe)
Director Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007) – the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s struggle with nearly-total paralysis – floats into a dream-like state, as the film delivers a sensitive portrayal of the man’s limited physical capabilities and deeply resonant firsthand experiences. Bauby’s left eye was not paralyzed, as Schnabel attempts to capture the former “Elle” magazine editor’s rich viewpoint through this unique lens.
The director takes a similar approach with “At Eternity’s Gate”: Vincent Van Gogh’s perspective during the last couple years of his life in the rural community of Arles – located in southeast France - when and where he painted massive amounts of work. Schnabel also films in Arles with its rolling hills, flatlands, open fields, skies of both grays and blues, and tangible surfaces of dirt. In fact, at one point during the movie, Van Gogh rolls on the loose, dry earth to help connect with his surroundings.
Willem Dafoe takes up the Herculean task of playing Van Gogh and connects, physically and emotionally. To begin with, Dafoe looks like Van Gogh. Thin and gaunt, but also hungry. Hungry to create. This obsessive and passionate prodigy bids to absorb every inch of his new environment as his inspiration.
He regularly exits his humble quarters - with a blank canvas and tubes of paint – and hikes grassy buttes and forever-long fields, as music composer Tatiana Lisovkaia adds a moving score of a single piano or violin throughout many of Van Gogh’s open-air excursions. Schnabel pays strict attention to Arles and depicts the land’s trancelike nature as Van Gogh probably saw it, including breathtaking pastures of dormant sunflowers, distinctly vertical cypress trees and acres of farmlands with splatters of browns, greens and faint pinks.
Although “At Eternity’s Gate” associates the countryside to Van Gogh’s stimulation, one of Schnabel’s most effective scenes resides in our protagonist’s quarters. For about three or four minutes, Van Gogh sits alone in his room, takes off his shoes to reveal holes in his socks and paints on a canvas. While a piano and/or violin are ever-present during his treks across Arles, they are noticeably absent here, as only scant, gentle sounds of a secluded man working reach our eardrums.
Not only do Schanbel and Dafoe render Van Gogh’s urges to produce a constant stream of work, but they portray his loneliness and misunderstood mental illness as well. The villagers properly consider him obsessive, but some badly misjudge him as ill-intentioned, as often happens when confronted by those with such disorders. Dafoe’s Van Gogh not only struggles with his personal demons, but also his place on the planet, one that treats him like a space alien.
Thankfully, Van Gogh has a couple key allies: his brother Theo (Rupert Friend) and fellow artist Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). You might find yourself continually hoping that one or both will remain with Vincent to help extend his temporary reprieves from self-doubt and disarray. Even though Paul disagrees with Vincent’s artistic approach, he appreciates his gifts, and Theo always, always, always champions his brother’s work. Alas, Paul’s and Theo’s appearances are rare commodities, as Van Gogh is mostly left to his own devices.
Through the toil of Van Gogh’s personal discomfort, however, he creates masterful pieces, and “At Eternity’s Gate” works as a holistic picture that operates at the most organic levels of his relationship with the world. Rather than run through a set collection of linear milestones, this biopic breathes with oceans of visceral rhythms and imagery (not unlike 2017’s animated feature “Loving Vincent”). Over a 1-hour 50-minute runtime, one can easily walk away with a deeper understanding of Van Gogh’s feelings during his most productive, creative genius and - through his efforts - his drive for eternity.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.