With more biopics to his name than any other artist in history, one would expect Van Gogh’s cultural currency to have been spent up by now. Not so long in the wake of the gorgeous Loving Vincent, however, At Eternity’s Gate sees director Julian Schnabel prove that there is still mileage in this post-Impressionist tank. Dizzying visuals and a show stopping turn by Willem Dafoe – who was presented an Oscar nomination for the part – are the film’s chief pleasures, whilst its support of one controversial theory about the artist’s life does much to stand it apart.
That Van Gogh cut out a chunk of his ear to gift a prostitute is unquestioned and there’s no room for Anonymous type conspiracy theories here about ownership. Instead, challenged is the understanding that the troubled artist ended his own life. The theory that Van Gogh died by the accidental hand of an Auvers-sur-Oise teen was queried by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s animation too but here it is gospel. Many will balk at the proposal but it does at least give the film – which comes scripted by Schnabel, Jean-Claude Carrière and Louise Kugelberg – a diverse and intriguing angle. It is also highly appropriate that a feature this unconventional in deliverance should break the rules of historical parlance.
Schnabel shoots his film with intense disorientation. Shaky camerawork and – wittily – Dutch angles capture Van Gogh’s world with an apt idiosyncrasy, whilst wilful POV visions insist that we share his perspective. Taking this further, Schnabel delves into an approximation of Van Gogh’s mindset to imagine how he might have seen the world, so as to create the startlingly original works he translated to canvas and sketchbooks. In effect, this means lapsed-focus lenses and occasional yellow filters across the screen. Even with the film dismissing suicide as the cause of Van Gogh’s death, Schnabel taps well into the trauma of a man who was twice committed to asylums. It’s an admirably subtle depiction of mental illness that is captured here and one that stresses emotional vulnerability over notions of outlandish madness. In the film’s most touching scene, Schabel has Vincent share a bed with his brother – Rupert Friend’s Theo – on the latter’s visit to the hospital.
Rather like Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, At Eternity’s Gate seems less concerned with plotting than it does atmosphere and psyche. Dafoe spends much of the film traversing the land like some nomadic wanderer and questioning the nature of life. For lengthy swathes of Schnabel’s run time, dialogue is eschewed in favour of a dourly melodic score by Tatiana Lisovskaya, with black frames often splintering the story’s flow. At Eternity’s Gate is, indeed, at its strongest when embracing its own artistic high mindedness on a purely visual plane. A later conversion between Vincent and a priest (Mads Mikkelsen), by contrast, somewhat unsettles the film’s inherent authenticity by succumbing to modern day anachronism. It is, for instance, hard to believe that Vincent van Gogh ever said anything so self-confident as: ‘Maybe God made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet’. Mind, with Dafoe being thirty years too old for the role, perhaps this is a quibble worth overlooking?
While room is made here for cameos by Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) and a host of Vincent’s familiar models – the doctor and postman among them – it is a feeling for artistic isolation that pervades. Dafoe is mesmerising in the front and centre, channeling both pain and wonderment through world weary eyes. Recurrent across the film is a failure of the artist to find acceptance – Schnabel opens with Vincent failing even to win support from contemporary painters – and increasingly feeling the weight of rejection. This isn’t a cheerful watch but the power of frustrated talent is tangible.