Schnabel’s latest is about capturing the psychological essence of Van Gogh’s ingenuity/insanity – it may take a while to get into some kind of momentum, but Willem Dafoe’s fascinating performance helps it through its less than invigorating portions.
Dir. Julian Schnabel
2018 | France/USA | Biography/Drama | 111 mins | 2.35: 1 | English & French
PG (passed clean) for some thematic content
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner
Plot: A look at the life of painter Vincent van Gogh during the time he lived in Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise, France.
Awards: Won Best Actor & Green Drop Award (Venice). Nom. for Best Leading Actor (Oscars)
International Sales: Rocket Science
Singapore Distributor: Shaw Organisation
Subject Matter: Moderate/Slightly Niche
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex/Fragmentary
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed in theatres)
Van Gogh is no stranger to cinematic renditions of his life, particularly the weeks leading up to his untimely death. Some examples include Kirk Douglas’ starring turn in Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956) and French director Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh (1991). As recently as two years ago, we had one of the most loving tributes to the man in the form of an oil-painted animation, Loving Vincent (2017), which was an Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature.
Apart from art aficionados, At Eternity’s Gate should raise the curiosity of cinephiles, especially fans of director Julian Schnabel (Before Night Falls (2000) and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)) and actor Willem Dafoe. Dafoe, who won Best Actor at Venice, and gained enough traction to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Leading Actor, deserves all the accolades he has been receiving, delivering a challenging performance that requires Van Gogh’s internal torment and bursts of creative spontaneity to be communicated to audiences ‘in impressions’ rather than ‘through presence’.
“Maybe God made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet. It is said, life is for sowing. The harvest is not here.”
Schnabel’s visual style helps—handheld camerawork that disorientates, employing selective focus (some parts of the film have scenes that are blurry at the bottom), and using a diverse range of colours. The overlay of repeated dialogue (‘hearing voices’), and the constant piano-driven music that sometimes stops abruptly, add to the spirit of capturing Van Gogh’s ingenuity/insanity, or in other words, his psychological essence. Whether these become distracting or overbearing along the way is subject to debate, but one cannot really deny its immediacy in putting us into the head of the artist.
At Eternity’s Gate is not all great though—there are certainly some less than invigorating portions, and it takes a wee bit too long to get into second gear. I don’t think this will be an issue for moviegoers with an intrinsic interest in Van Gogh already, but those who are ‘trying’ this out might find it a bit of a bore.
There’s a quiet sequence involving Mads Mikkelsen who plays a priest, whose conversation with Van Gogh goes into the life and teachings of Jesus, whom Dafoe’s character professes a strong understanding of—quite the meta-cinematic moment for film enthusiasts who are already well-acquainted with Dafoe’s titular role in Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). (Coincidentally, Scorsese also played Van Gogh in a cameo in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990)).