AT ETERNITY’S GATE. Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner Niels Arestrup. Directed by Julian Schnabel. 111 minutes. Rated PG (Mild themes and coarse language).
‘At Eternity’s Gate’ presents a bold and experimental vision of the final years of legendary artist Vincent van Gogh’s life. The film premiered at last year’s Venice Film Festival, and one can immediately see its appeal to the festival’s curatorial staff; it boasts an impressive, almost transformative leading turn from reliable Hollywood talent Willem Dafoe, tackles serious, philosophical themes like art and madness and the connection between them, and invokes plenty of stylistic invention. It is, to a fault, the stereotypical “European Festival Movie”. I say “to a fault” because such a film is rarely a breezy watch. Director Julian Schnabel is more focused on pulling out his bag of tricks to convey the madness of his subject than creating an easily digestible biopic. It’s far too stylistically in-your-face and strange to be a mainstream film. However, in doing so, Schnabel has in a manner created a fitting ode to the painter famously unappreciated during his own lifetime.
The plot picks up with van Gogh (Dafoe) bound for the South of France on the recommendation of his talented peer Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). After the failure of his attempted group show in Paris and sick from too much drinking and his smoker’s cough, van Gogh seeks inspiration in the natural beauty of Arles, which sparked a historically rich period in the painter’s output (van Gogh produced hundreds of works during his residency there).
There, Vincent stays in an inn run by Madame Ginoux (Emmanuelle Seigner), before moving into a vacant room next door. His living arrangement is funded by his art dealing younger brother Theo (Rupert Friend, deeply convincing in his concern), who pays his expenses in exchange for some of his paintings. Although Theo sees his brother’s talent (or at the very least wants to believe that he sees it), he struggles to convert these works into any actual revenue. Not even a glowing review in the Mercure de France gazette, praising Vincent as a “genius”, sparks the commercial interest that both van Goghs desperately need.
However, Vincent is happy to spend his days soaking in his sublime surrounding. Schnabel, too, revels in the handsome landscapes, setting Dafoe free to run and roam and absorb the earth around him (even literally in one instance). Even if one were blind to the beauty of the French vistas, Dafoe’s performance, ripe with freewheeling ecstasy, conveys its intense stimulatory effect on the artist. As van Gogh later identifies, “the essence of nature is beauty”, and it is the pursuit of this essence that drives van Gogh.
After an episode of madness, invoked when the painter is harassed by a class of school children, van Gogh is sent to a hospital. The screenplay, written by Schnabel with Jean-Claude Carrière and Louise Kugelberg, does not shy away from van Gogh’s well-documented demons. After his release, Gauguin tells van Gogh that he is “surrounded by stupid, wicked, ignorant people”, and the film certainly portrays van Gogh’s troubles as if they were as much a product of his surroundings as innate elements of his character. His time with Gauguin, who Isaac make a debonair presence next to the haggard van Gogh, complete with rakish goatee and bristly moustache, inspires both men to paint and converse, and they form a deep friendship.
Despite Vincent’s growing reliance on Paul, the latter eventually leaves, prompting van Gogh to cut off his own ear. From this point onwards, van Gogh drifts more frequently in and out of the hospital. It’s in one of these stints that he crosses paths with a priest (Mads Mikkelsen), who both wants to assess van Gogh’s capacity to leave the hospital and convey to van Gogh how repellent he finds his art. Their conversation is fascinating, pitting the priest’s dated understanding of faith and beauty against van Gogh’s own spiritualism, itself inextricable from his creativity. After his release, van Gogh is entrusted to the supervision of melancholic doctor Paul Gachet (Mathieu Amalric) in Auvers-sur-Oise. Gachet has some experience caring for other painters with similar troubles, but Vincent dies a few months later while in his care (the film contests suicide as his accepted cause of death). It’s not a cradle to grave biography, but it certainly ends at the grave.
Formally, Director Julian Schnabel clearly had little interest in creating a staid, boilerplate biopic. His camera is intimate, urgent, playful, tilting and rolling strangely one minute, jammed up into his actors’ faces mid-conversation the next. The iconography of van Gogh is all over the film – his yellow room in Arles, his sunflowers, the Arles postman Joseph Roulin – but French DP Benoît Delhomme, who also shot epic Australian western ‘The Proposition’, also incorporates elements of van Gogh’s style into his images. Delhomme often employs a strange bifocal lens, smearing the lower half of the image with blurred streaks of colour like those that define van Gogh’s own post-Impressionist works. Elsewhere, he makes liberal use of a fisheye lens (most often when shooting POV as van Gogh is moving through the countryside), and this too evokes both a feeling of mania and the artist’s openness to creation around him.
The sound design is interesting as well, regularly looping conversations, replaying their introductions several times before their flow can gain purchase and play out. Schnabel often has Dafoe philosophising as van Gogh over black screens, talking about his art and his life. Composer Tatiana Lisovskaya creates plenty of introspection with her simple but beautiful musical arrangements, mostly employing a single piano and strings. It’s the simplicity of Lisovskaya’s score that allow the other, more unruly elements to sing, and it provides a fitting backdrop to Dafoe’s often silent performance.
Dafoe, who was 25 years older than van Gogh ever was at time of filming, was a surprising choice for the painter, however he is powerfully convincing, even notching up an Oscar nomination for his portrayal. Though he doesn’t exactly resemble surviving photos of van Gogh, Dafoe instead suggests the way that van Gogh saw and painted himself in his frequent self-portraits. His sunken cheeks and haunted eyes suit the artist’s fraught mental state, capturing the mania bubbling beneath the serene artist captured by his work. The actor also learned to paint like van Gogh, and impressively captures the rapid, blended brushstrokes of the artist. Rather mercifully, Schnabel excuses his cast from any attempt at an accent, and any concerns regarding this notion are quickly forgotten.
‘At Eternity’s Gate’ grapples with the notion of the artist in relation to the infinite. Vincent talks of his desire to no longer see a landscape, but rather “the eternity behind it”. Schnabel’s film doesn’t attempt to create a work with the same timelessness, but rather a highly contemporary, visually daring interpretation of one figure that will like split opinions with its dazzling style and unusual storytelling. Proudly wearing its film festival credibility on its sleeve, ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ may prove as divisive with mainstream audiences as van Gogh’s early works, and there’s something rather appropriate about that.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out February 14.