Julian Schnabel’s portrait of Vincent Van Gogh, beautifully portrayed by Willem Dafoe, focuses on the subjectivity of a painter for whom art was the only reason for living.
By my count there have been at least eight films dramatizing the life of Vincent Van Gogh—such is the fascination surrounding the great Dutch painter, virtually unrecognized in his time and who died tragically at the age of 37. The latest film about Van Gogh is entitled At Eternity’s Gate, directed and co-written by Julian Schnabel, an American whose own experience as a painter has informed his work, which mostly concerns artists of various kinds. His focus in this picture is on the subjectivity of a painter for whom art was the only reason for living—the absolute drive and commitment involved in that, and the great personal cost, in the case of Van Gogh complicated by mental illness, the exact nature of which remains unclear.
The film opens with Van Gogh, played by Willem Dafoe, having his paintings removed from a tavern because he had promised a group show, but in the end it was only his work on the wall. He couldn’t get any other artist to go in with him on the show, and in a scene at a pub where he is joined by his brother Theo (Rupert Friend), he sits forlornly apart from a meeting of local painters, a meeting that displays the narrow and competitive nature of that small world. One of the painters, Paul Gauguin, played by Oscar Isaac, stands up and berates the others for their pettiness, leaving the pub in a huff. Van Gogh follows him, and they make each other’s acquaintance, a relationship that will have fateful consequences, the first of which is Van Gogh moving to the south of France on Gauguin’s advice, in order to find better light.
There he produces an abundance of great work, but unfortunately his mental state declines, especially after a visit from Gauguin in which the French painter has sharp differences with his friend on the subject of art, and ends up leaving. After confinement in two different insane asylums, and in great poverty, with intermittent spells of intense creativity, Van Gogh comes to his final residence at Auvers-sur-Oise, northwest of Paris.
The title At Eternity’s Gate was the name of one of Van Gogh’s paintings, showing a man in grief, but which also hints at the artist’s view of his calling. Standing at the metaphorical gate between life and death, Van Gogh can see things others cannot, and his greatest need is to communicate these things through painting.
Willem Dafoe’s performance is hypnotizing—it seems he was born to play Van Gogh. Although he’s about 25 years older than the character, he looks just as one would imagine him to be, and his eyes have that faraway gaze of a man totally absorbed in his vision. Schnabel’s style emphasizes the internal pressure experienced by the artist, using a lot of handheld camera, with its insistent shakiness; strikingly combined with wide-angle lenses (the picture was shot by Benoit Delhomme). It never lets up—we find ourselves relentlessly driven along the road of life with Van Gogh. His point of view becomes ours, with aural and visual repetition near the end spotlighting his gradual mental breakdown.
Earlier this year there was another Van Gogh film called Loving Vincent, directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman. This was an animated moving in which the drawing very cleverly imitated Van Gogh’s style, and I recommend it highly as well. It starts after Van Gogh’s death and takes the form of an investigation into how he died, but along the way presents an intriguing version of the man. At Eternity’s Gate adopts a somewhat controversial version of Van Gogh’s death, but Schnabel is not so much focused on biographical details. He aims to portray the soul of the painter in all its ecstasy and torment, and largely thanks to Willem Dafoe, the movie succeeds in making a beautiful and profound statement.