Biopics about the painter Vincent van Gogh are so plentiful—including last year’s beautifully animated work Loving Vincent—they are almost their own genre, but I’m not sure an actual, established artist has ever directed one of them. This makes director/co-writer Julian Schnabel’s (Basquiat, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) take on Van Gogh’s life all the more interesting because the filmmaker attempts not just to tell a life story, but also to get inside the head and vision of someone he admires and may even identify with.
Co-written with Jean-Claude Carrière and Louise Kugelberg, At Eternity’s Gate takes the approach of not following established historical texts, instead opting to work from letters, shared stories about Van Gogh (portrayed masterfully by Willem Dafoe) from people who knew him, and event moments that are perhaps invented but feel right in the context of his work. In many ways, this frees Schnabel to tell a more interesting, if not entirely factual, version of the painter’s story, and the end result is a journey into his eyes and into his disturbed mind, one that refused to adhere to conventional ways of painting or even seeing the world around him.
The film prominently features the two most important men in Vincent’s life—his brother and agent Theo (Rupert Friend) and fellow painter Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac)—who take turns checking in on Van Gogh as he moves from place to place throughout provincial France, attempting to find somewhere he can work in peace and not be mocked by the locals or the established art community. Encounters he has with various citizens, doctors and others work to build a fascinating character study that sometimes also lets us see the world through Van Gogh’s blurry eyes.
Mads Mikkelsen makes an especially exceptional appearance as The Priest who visits the artist just before he is released from a mental hospital. And it is in this sequence that Van Gogh’s personal philosophy is finally revealed: he believes his painting will be appreciated more after he’s gone. This may be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I believe a great number of artists feel the same way. The sequence also makes clear Van Gogh’s self-awareness, that he is a man who doesn’t feel he belongs anywhere. Also popping up in the film are Mathieu Amalric as Dr. Paul Gachet, a French physician and one of the last doctors to treat Van Gogh during his final weeks. They share a particularly tender moment when Van Gogh is at his weakest, and it makes us remember that the man didn’t die thinking he was a great artist, even though he had just completed a series of paintings that were considered his crowning achievement.
Shot in a variety of styles by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme (The Theory of Everything), At Eternity’s Gate alternates between a dreamlike state, stark reality, visions of insanity and a glimpse at the way a groundbreaking artist sees and manipulates the world around him. My heart began to race every time Vincent sat down at the canvas and stared out at whatever was beginning to inspire him at that moment. That is what the birth of art looks like—serene, focused and transcendent. The movie at times dives too deeply into Schnabel’s personal take on Van Gogh, but it’s worth sitting through these indulgences to watch Dafoe just devour this role.
The film is now playing at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.
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