For an earlier review of At Eternity’s Gate, click here.
Synopsis: Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate is a journey inside the world and mind of a person who, despite skepticism, ridicule and illness, created some of the world’s most beloved and stunning works of art. This is not a forensic biography, but rather scenes based on Vincent van Gogh’s letters, common agreement about events in his life that present as facts, hearsay, and moments that are just plain invented. (CBS Films)
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, and Oscar Isaac
Writers: Jean-Claude Carrière, Louise Kugelberg, and Julian Schnabel
Director: Julian Schnabel
Rating: PG-13 (United States)
Running Time: 110mins
This ain’t your standard biopic and that’s probably for the best. Everyone has heard of the famed painter Vincent van Gogh so there is very little reason to go through his life story once again. This new film, At Eternity’s Gate, was like a greatest hits of sorts, was more of an interpretation that took a more impressionistic approach to the back end of his life. The story followed Van Gogh (Dafoe) as we saw the world how he perceived it from his time as a struggling artist to his unfortunate death under mysterious circumstances.
The story was pretty much a straightforward journey, using plenty of background information from Van Gogh’s life including his letters, firsthand knowledge of events from his life, some hearsay, and some fabricated moments for good measure. While it was compelling to watch, most will be enveloped by the film’s style. The camera seemed to always be uncomfortably close to the action on screen, almost mimicking Van Gogh’s frenetic personality. Those close-up shots as well as wide-shots of the beautiful French countryside would frame scenes like they were paintings. Though sometimes the plot would be lost within these paintings.
Broke and down on his luck, Van Gogh found himself in the South of France based on the advice of his friend and fellow artist Paul Gaugin (Isaac) and quickly becoming consumed by the beautiful landscape. Despite finding little success while drawing the ire of the local townspeople, Gaugin was one of his only supporters. After spending time together, it was clear that they were not compatible stylistically and ideologically. Their eventual separation eventually lead to the moment that he is mostly known for which was when he cut off one of his own ears.
The remainder of the story following the loss of Van Gogh’s ear up until his passing would be the most open to interpretation. A film that was already told from his unorthodox perspective became a little harder to follow, mimicking Van Gogh’s sheer confusion over his final years. It was during this downfall that his work finally began to catch on. It was a shame that the story couldn’t go further with his final years, including a creative explosion of 70 paintings though not much is actually known about said years.
Ultimately, the film would not have worked if not for Dafoe’s great performance as Van Gogh. He definitely looked the part and he was also very compelling to watch in what was a deeply nuanced performance of a severely mental ill man full of pain who was still very creative (obviously) despite that pain. While this film was mostly Dafoe’s the only other performance that managed to make an impression was that of Isaac as Gaugin that succeeded, even with limited screen time, based on charm alone.
Overall, this was a beautiful experimental biopic of sorts, telling the story of Vincent Van Gogh in a fresh way with plenty of style that may not work for some viewers. It may be compelling but fails to sustain it by the end while the plot and Dafoe’s great performance both get lost in that style. At the end of the day, it may be another Van Gogh film but it’s different approach and Dafoe’s impressive performance make this well worth the watch.