“At Eternity’s Gate” (2018) is the latest film to tackle the turbulent life of Vincent van Gogh. As I reviewed “Loving Vincent,” the animated van Gogh film, a while back, and, in my old blog, discussed “Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams,” in which Martin Scorsese plays van Gogh (clip here), I feel happily obliged to review this one. Is it possible to convey what Vincent went through within the limits of cinema? Perhaps, and I think this one, by taking a less-than-linear, dare I say impressionistic, view, it comes closer than any other. This isn’t the film I would start with in order to introduce someone to Vincent through film; that has to be “Lust for Life” (1956). Subsequent films have the luxury of going beyond the Hollywood biopic formula, much to the delight of us, the viewer.
Director Julian Schnabel made his name as a painter back in the 1980s, and (in my opinion) a pretty poor painter, especially when judged against his meteoric success, but as a filmmaker he is truly in his element. What he and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme have done is to create a distinctive visual presence, which echoes van Gogh’s works without being slavish. The muted light of the early scenes, a Millet light, gives way to the increasingly intense yellows of southern France. Textures stand out: grass, earth, Vincent’s straw hat. It is a lush and heady mix, like a painting but not too much. At times the film seems to come loose from storytelling, allowing the camera to roam through fields with Vincent, caught up in his emotion and only tenuously connected to any plot thread.
Yes, Willem Dafoe is too old for van Gogh, but this is not a documentary. Dafoe’s face, wizened and sunken as a mummy’s, and his rough, aged hands call to mind the work-hardened features of the Dutch peasants van Gogh drew and painted. He is a van Gogh come to life, and deserved the Academy Award nomination he received. Dafoe inhabits the role, giving us a van Gogh who is turned and tumbled by the forces of his life, who clings to art as his only raft in the maelstrom. It’s a brilliant performance. By comparison, the other characters are thin, shadow-like. Oscar Isaac does a decent job as Paul Gauguin, but he cannot match the larger-than-life fire Anthony Quinn brought to the same role in Lust for Life – I can see I’m going to have to review that some day. The rest of the cast are adequate but forgettable.
A few paintings are shown in the works, which highlights the problems with making a film about an artist. These recreations, by Dafoe, Schnabel, and Edith Baudrand (an artist working on the film) are clearly not van Goghs. They are movie props, ersatz, but there’s little to be done about them. This is a flaw universal to all art-related biopics; ignore it and move on.
At Eternity’s Gate, while chronological, is not linear. At times moment follows moment without clear connections between them. These are incidents from van Gogh’s life, but, like much of life, they are not subordinate to an overarching narrative. Much of what we do in life is not tied to our story, but ends up becoming part of it; we are always becoming, rather than acting out a plot that is preordained. The obvious drama – Vincent cutting off part of an ear being the obvious example – is not shown; instead we see Vincent in the hospital, describing his fragmented memories of the event. This allows Schnabel to work around the accepted story: there are hints in the historical record that perhaps Vincent did not cut off his own ear, but it was accidentally cut off by Gauguin during a drunken escapade. Less successful is the opposite approach regarding Vincent’s death. While historians debate whether Vincent shot himself or was shot by a local teenager, Schnabel takes sides and presents the latter, staging it vaguely enough to leave definitive interpretation open. But, then, both stories are tragic and wrong, because we don’t want Vincent to die. Like Romeo & Juliet, Vincent’s love soars high but ends in tragedy, and is just as prone to romanticization.
I’ve seen many van Gogh biopics – Robert Altman’s 1990 film “Vincent & Theo” a notable omission – but “At Eternity’s Gate” is the best. It is the most artistic, best suited to an audience that already knows a little about the subject, and the most like a work of art – yes, even more than the rotoscoping of “Loving Vincent.” I highly recommend it.
P.S. I should also link to my letter to van Gogh, written years ago. You can read it here.