Vincent Van Gogh is a universally beloved artist who nearly everyone in the world, even those with no understanding of art whatsoever, knows. Unfortunately, the grand amount of eternal fame didn’t come to him until his death. His legacy is befouled in a way, focusing quite a bit on the infamous ear incident, which has mostly been twisted in a decades-long game of telephone into something nowhere near the actual truth. At Eternity’s Gate is the most honest homage to Van Gogh that I’m sure he would be proud, if he were here to see it.
Julian Schnabel is the perfect person to direct a film based on Vincent Van Gogh’s later life, considering his prolific art career and his proven track record in creating masterful biographical films such as Basquiat and The Diving Bell and The Butterfly. At Eternity’s Gate is no exception. It’s a beautiful visual and spiritual journey through the glorious highs and devastating lows of a brilliant artist who was ahead of his time. There is even a line in the film where Van Gogh (in perhaps Willem Dafoe’s best performance) says to a priest at an asylum he’s been staying at for a while (played by powerhouse actor Mads Mikkelsen in a surprisingly calm and stoic performance) “perhaps I am painting for people who haven’t even been born yet.” Of course, that line is a little tongue-in-cheek but who knows, maybe Van Gogh had enough foresight to know that his fame lied in eternity.
“…a beautiful visual and spiritual journey through the glorious highs and devastating lows of a brilliant artist…”
At Eternity’s Gate starts with Van Gogh at a meeting for artists in Paris. An idea is floated to create a collective where all artists live and work. Artists who sell, get to work on their art the most, while the ones who don’t sell have to do the cooking, cleaning, and gardening. Vincent is there and so is Paul Gauguin, another world-renowned painter (played with all of that French masculine bravado, Oscar Isaac). Paul is very much against the idea of a hierarchy in something that is supposed to be a collective, so he leaves the meeting. Vincent goes to meet him outside after the meeting when Paul tells Vincent he should get out of Paris and head south.
Embracing the advice, Vincent moves to Arles. Overcome, at first, with joy at the beauty of the small town in the south of France, and that is made evident with the visual splendor that is captured beautifully by cinematographer Benoit Delhomme. It doesn’t take long before the loneliness mixed with whatever mental illness Vincent had, which appears to be a mix of alcoholism/depression/maybe schizophrenia, takes him on a turn for the worse. Vincent’s brother Theo (Rupert Friend) sends Gauguin to Arles to keep Vincent company and he will give him a stipend for the works he creates while he’s there.
The chemistry between Isaac and Dafoe is compelling to watch. I love both actors in most everything they’ve done and to see them in a sort of love/hate relationship with each other is very interesting. It is clarified that Van Gogh cut off his ear for Madame Ginoux (Emmanuelle Seigner), a local barmaid, to give to Gauguin. Vincent was upset that Paul was leaving him alone, and this was the best gesture that Vincent’s brain could produce for him to show this feeling to Paul.
“…most beautiful depictions of the artistic mind, as well as mental illness…”
Schnabel said during the New York Film Festival that At Eternity’s Gate is not about Van Gogh, it is being Van Gogh, and if you see the film, you’ll understand precisely what he means. When Van Gogh is outside to paint, the camera tricks make you see nature in the way Schnabel assumes Van Gogh must’ve. There’s a soft blurry light around everything. Additionally, whenever Van Gogh is having an episode, the voices of the people around him overlap and loop and he looks visibly confused. There are also several incidents which we see the beginning of, but then the screen blacks out. Vincent explains that whenever he experiences bad feelings/events, he is frenzied until he blacks out and loses memory of what happened.
This film is one of the most beautiful depictions of the artistic mind, as well as mental illness that I have ever seen. I did hear one seasoned film critic practically yell to his seatmate “This movie’s as slow as Christmas” during the screening in which I saw it, and the pace is not fast, but it makes sense for it not to be. I was moved by At Eternity’s Gate very much, and I am hoping that Defoe gets an Oscar nomination or maybe even a win for his performance as the prototypical tortured artist.
At Eternity’s Gate (2018) Directed by Julian Schnabel. Written by Jean-Claude Carriere, Louise Kugelberg, and Julian Schnabel. Starring Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Emmanuelle Seigner.
10 out of 10 stars