Julian Schnabel’s latest film “At Eternity’s Gate” looks around the last few years of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), who was surely one of the greatest painters in the 19th Europe but unfortunately did not receive much attention during his rather short artistic career. Although its loose, unconventional storytelling approach is sometimes challenging, the movie mostly succeeds in vividly presenting van Gogh’s humanity and artistry on the screen, and, above all, it is firmly held together by one of the best movie performances of last year.
The first half of the movie is set in 1888, when things were a bit better for Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) mainly thanks to the constant support from his brother Theo (Rupert Friend). During his brief encounter with his fellow painter Paul Gaugin (Oscar Isaac), Gaugin advises him to go to South France for more inspiration, and he instantly follows Gaugin’s advice. Once he settles in a small shabby yellow house located in Arles, he goes around here and there for getting any inspiration, and we soon see him trying to draw what he sees and feels from those lovely landscapes of Arles.
While he feels happy and excited with his artistic activity, Van Gogh often clashes with local people due to his occasionally tumultuous temper, and he is later sent to a hospital after getting himself beaten hard by several local guys. As he frankly admits to Theo at the hospital, he knows well that there is the madness growing somewhere inside his mind, but he sometimes cannot help himself, and it looks like there is nothing he can do about that.
Quite concerned about his brother, Theo requests Gaugin to come to Arles for staying with his brother, and the situation seems to get better for Van Gogh as he spends lots of time with Gaugin, but then we see how incompatible they are in many aspects. Besides their difference in personality, they have very different views on art and its philosophy, and that is particularly exemplified well by a brief scene where they happen to draw a portrait from the same model respectively. While Gaugin slowly and carefully sketches, Van Gogh roughly and rapidly draws without any hesitation, and he is not so pleased when he hears some criticism from Gaugin later.
Eventually, there comes a point where Gaugin decides to leave Arles for further advancing in his career, and Van Gogh is consequently devastated and then goes through another bout of madness. Wisely skipping over that infamous incident involved with his left ear, the movie goes straight to the aftermath of that incident, and we get a sobering conversation scene between him and his psychiatrist. As he calmly answers the questions from his psychiatrist, the movie silently focuses right on his face, the bitter confusion and devastation felt from his resigned attitude is palpable to say the least.
Van Gogh is later sent to a local asylum for more treatment, and it looks like he is recovering from his mental illness for a while, but, shortly after going outside the asylum, he gets himself into a trouble again. During one memorable scene, he talks with a priest who comes to evaluate whether he is seriously insane or not, and he says a lot about how difficult it is to be an under-appreciated painter born ahead of his time. He simply wants to convey his artistic viewpoint to others, and he surely feels good and alive whenever he tries to do that, but, alas, there are not many people interested in his paintings besides Theo, whose house is full of his brother’s numerous paintings as shown from a brief scene later in the film.
Schnabel, who wrote the screenplay with Jean-Claude Carrière and Louise Kugelberg and also edited the film along with Kugelberg, did an admirable job of bringing considerable raw and intense quality to his subject. Although he and his cinematographer Benoît Delhomme go a bit too far at time as trying to emphasize Van Gogh’s unstable state of mind to us (the frequent shaky camera work throughout the film got rather tiresome for me, for instance), the movie works well whenever it closely looks at the face of Van Gogh or calmly looks over wide and beautiful landscapes, and we come to get the clear sense of what inspired and drove him till the end of his life.
It goes without saying that the movie depends a lot on Willem Dafoe, who deservedly received the Best Actor award at the Venice International Film Festival in last year and was also recently Oscar-nominated for his restrained but undeniably powerful performance here in this film. Although he is in fact quite older than Van Gogh around the time of his death, Dafoe effortlessly embodies his character’s artistic spirit, and the result reminds us again of how he has constantly been versatile during last four decades. In case of other main performers in the film, Oscar Isaac, Rupert Friend, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, and Niels Arestrup are solid in their respective supporting roles, and they effectively function as various counterpoints to Dafoe’s performance.
In conclusion, “At Eternity’s Gate” is not wholly successful, but it is still worthwhile to watch for several reasons including Dafoe’s superlative acting, and I think it deserves to be mentioned along with other notable films about Van Gogh’s life and career such as Vincente Minnelli’s “Lust for Life” (1956) and Robert Altman’s “Vincent & Theo” (1990). While it definitely requires some patience from you as your typical arthouse film, the movie is a rewarding experience on the whole, and you may come to be more interested in Van Gogh’s body of work after watching it.