The stereotype of the tortured artist, struggling to showcase their purpose in life and the importance of their art, can certainly be quite the tragic and romantic image so much so that this popular narrative pathway has paved the way to many accolades (including the coveted Oscar gold). So while we see these films annually around awards season, they also run the risk of becoming stale. But the true life story of the man that almost single-handedly created this image of the afflicted artiste, reminds us that even though the narrative may be cliched, it is totally captivating and emotional nonetheless.
The man in question is Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), the acclaimed Dutch post-impressionist artist, who is lovingly commemorated by director Julian Schnabel in At Eternity’s Gate. As with other films about van Gogh (Lust for Life (1956) and last year’s Loving Vincent), At Eternity’s Gate is a sympathetic tribute to not just his life, but to the enduring power of his paintings.
van Gogh’s short career was accentuated as much by his prolific output, as it was by his tortuous personal mental disease; it was an existence that led to few rewards until of course unjustly after his death. It is this dour yet utterly brilliant life that At Eternity’s Gate brings to the screen with a deep compassion and love; emotions that Vincent failed to receive by the majority of society. With an impressive set and costume design the movie captures the look of the late 19th century in the French countryside very well. Peasants, tavern workers, young children, the upper class aristocracy, and fellow artist Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) round out Vincent’s crowded world, yet still a true friend was never really close.
Filled with recreations of van Gogh’s paintings audiences are transported back in time in a manner that looks most natural. While the film’s generally slow pace and frequent use of an unsteady camera may turn off some viewers, the quaint beauty of the landscapes and Willem Dafoe’s forceful performance more than make up for it.
Although there are prolonged sequences of Vincent in the fields of Arles in Southern France, strange close ups, and hallucinatory scenes with a changing color scheme, these unconventional techniques really become as unconventional as van Gogh himself. We may not be a step closer to understanding how the artist saw the world and why he painted, but at the very least we are left to admire his immense talent and lament his immense sickness. Truly then the film asks how is it possible that one single mind could be both so brilliant and so afflicted?
Willem Dafoe, coming off an understated yet heartfelt performance in last year’s The Florida Project steps into the role of van Gogh with a commanding and sensitive performance; if some viewers do indeed feel distracted by the shaking camera and the occasionally plodding narrative, Dafoe’s magnetic incarnation of van Gogh is constantly absorbing.
It is not so much that he very much resembles him, but that he seems to have really tapped into the fragile psyche of the Dutchman. He is joyful, optimistic, depressed, distraught and totally misunderstood, and Dafoe brings all these emotions to life with delicate and emotional acting. In a career full of memorable leads, he delivers what is easily among his best performances.
With this personification of van Gogh, the artist is presented as the quintessential tortured soul but he is never exhibited as a pathetic, wretched figure. Instead, it is the uncaring society, the ignorant townsfolk, and the condescending critics who are shown as the real figures of wretchedness. As I wrote in the review for the wonderful Loving Vincent, ” Few if any actually understood his reason for being and the drive behind his ‘madness’. If the world is a global village then it failed Vincent van Gogh.”This theme continues with At Eternity’s Gate and director Julian Schnabel has shown not only a great admiration for Vincent van Gogh but an affectionate embrace of human loneliness and the need for compassion. Despite some camera techniques that may distract viewers and a lulling pace, this is a handsomely made film of tribute to the man songwriter Don McLean eulogized so eloquently with the words “For they could not love you but still, your love was true but I could’ve told you,