At Eternity's Gate is a confronting portrait of Vincent van Gogh

by James Robins / 19 December, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - At Eternity's Gate movie

The Van Gogh biopic gives Willem Dafoe the opportunity to make a lasting impressionist.

In the years before his death in 1890, Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh painted at frightening speed, producing more than 200 works, including several of his most influential pieces. But those years were also van Gogh’s most troubled. At Eternity’s Gate is an abrasive, confronting portrait of that visionary mind coming undone.

Epilepsy, syphilis, bipolar disorder. Whatever it was, veteran actor Willem Dafoe portrays van Gogh here as an agitated loner driven by an almost ascetic compulsion for painting – and nothing else.

His director, Julian Schnabel, is a prominent painter himself and a contemporary of Jean-Michel Basquiat – the subject of his first film. But he is clearly not interested in creating a generic biopic of a man who has been portrayed many times on screen. The film flits manically from experience to experience, charting a demise, a rejection. We get the sunflowers, sure, but they’re wilted and forlorn. The severed ear shows up, too, but the consequence is a stint in an asylum.

Rather, the director’s fascination is with the inner life of the painter and those spasms of ecstatic creativity. In one early scene, van Gogh wearily takes off his worn boots, notices the way they catch the light, quickly sets up an easel and daubs the canvas with humid smears. Today, A Pair of Shoes, 1888 hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Indeed, At Eternity’s Gate dwells on the gap between his obscurity then and his celebrity now. Everyone today knows the name, even if they can’t pronounce it: van Goff? Van Go? Van Gokhh? For his entire life, though, he was chided and reviled. Other painters were especially condescending. Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) scolds him for laziness, his canvases lumpen with blobs of paint. What Gauguin criticised as undisciplined we now understand as fundamentally alive with texture. Only his brother Theo (Rupert Friend) tries to empathise with whatever addles his brain.

The artist as madman – it’s almost a cliché, yet Schnabel at least tries to capture something of the painter’s frenzied prodigiousness. The camera vibrates with unsteady motion, flitting from first to third person, often pushed so tight to the actors’ faces that their breath fogs the lens.

And I don’t want to be unkind, but Willem Dafoe has always had the look of a man possessed by some kind of demonic presence. His commitment to mining the depths of van Gogh’s despair and inspiration here is astonishing: suddenly breaking into a fit of primal wrath or writhing in the French earth overcome with the beauty of the landscape. It’s one of those “born to play” sort of roles.

At Eternity’s Gate has many rough edges. Its impressionistic style can be tough going, but the film captures the tragedy of van Gogh’s story. As he says mournfully, “I’m a painter for people who aren’t born yet.”

IN CINEMAS FROM DECEMBER 20

★★★★

Video: Transmission Films

This article was first published in the December 22, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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