There is no denying that within the troubled man that was Vincent van Gogh resided the heart of an artist. He was a man intensely dependent on painting. For him it was as vital as air or food. At the same time van Gogh’s struggles with mental health are almost as legendary as the timeless art he left behind. “At Eternity’s Gate” seeks to bring this immensely talented but deeply troubled man to life.
Director and co-writer Julian Schnabel, a painter himself, focuses his film on the last few years of van Gogh’s life. His intention is to capture the spirit of the artist more so than provide an authentically detailed historical account. It’s an approach that allows for him to use his film as a canvas and his camera as his brush. Much like the thick, heavy stroke of van Gogh’s brush, Schnabel and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme lean heavily on visual technique to emote and inform.
Van Gogh is played by 63-year-old Willem Dafoe and some have pointed out the age discrepancy between actor and character (Van Gogh died at age 37). But mere seconds into his first scene it’s clear that Dafoe is the perfect choice. Always the immersive actor, Dafoe prepared for the role by learning to paint, scouring over van Gogh’s many letters, and visited the French countryside, gazing upon many of the same landscapes that found there way onto the artist’s canvases.
Schnabel paints us an intimate portrait that seeks to get in the painter’s headspace and show us things from his perspective (at times even using his camera in first-person). This proves to have a duel effect. First it gives us a riveting look at the creative impulses that drove him to paint and the near therapeutic joy he took from it. We see it in these entrancing sequences where van Gogh takes off walking, loaded with painting gear, searching for inspiration and nature’s perfect image. The gorgeous locales, Dafoe’s impassioned and affecting portrayal, the exquisite piano chords from Tatiana Lisovskaya score all work together to help us see things as Vincent sees them.
Second, we experience the cracks in his sanity from his point of view. Simple anxieties slowly give way to voices and visions which haunt the artist but tragically inspire some of his best work. The deeper the dive into his tormented psyche the more Schnabel blurs the lines between Vincent’s visions and reality. Not only does he begin questioning what he sees, but so do we. Through it all the film smartly makes no judgements nor does it try and diagnose his madness.
Along the way we get some fabulous supporting work, mostly in small parts but each equally good. Oscar Isaac is a nice fit as fellow post-Impressionist (and short-time friend) Paul Gauguin. Rupert Friend is really good as Vincent’s supportive brother Theo. And Mads Mikkelsen has a short but brilliant scene playing a priest tasked with determining Vincent’s mental fitness.
“Sometimes my mind goes out on me.” It’s a heartbreaking line from a tortured soul trying to make some sense of his mental decline. These laments of introspection and self-examination are countered with touching creative moments where Vincent, with a child-like wonder, loses himself in his art and the natural beauty that inspired it. And it’s all conveyed without leaning on sentimentality or needless melodrama.
Vincent van Gogh’s death in 1890 has long been attributed to suicide but that belief has since come up for debate. Schnabel’s film sides with biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith who in 2011 presented a much different and arguably more rational theory. Their idea definitely feels right for this particular portrait which I quite loved. And among the many cinematic turns taken at depicting van Gogh’s life (and there have been some good ones), “At Eternity’s Gate” is my new favorite.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS