There are probably more films about Vincent Van Gogh than any other artist, ranging from Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 biopic Lust for Life with Kirk Douglas, to 2017’s animated Loving Vincent that applied painting to the medium of film itself. At Eternity’s Gate is just the latest in that line. It’s an expressive and curious film that is both absorbing and frustrating in equal measures.
Director Julian Schnabel is best known for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but he’s depicted artistic individuals from his early films Basquiat and Before Night Falls (about poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas) to Lou Reed’s concert movie of Berlin. This fascination with creativity and art is explored head-on in At Eternity’s Gate.
The film has at least three overlapping layers: a straightforward biopic of Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe), a sensory expression of the artist’s peculiar and heightened way of seeing, and a sort of manifesto on the purpose of art.
The first is a mostly chronological depiction of The Life of the Artist capturing the key incidents. We’re introduced to the poor and ostracised artist in Paris, his initial meeting with Gauguin, his move to Arles supported financially by his brother Theo, Sunflowers, sharing a flat with Gauguin, their rivalry over the affections of innkeeper’s wife Marie Ginoux, Gauguin’s departure, a sliced ear, his eventual institutionalisation and death.
All present and somewhat correct, although for some reason the film depicts his death as caused by an accidental shooting rather than by suicide as is conventionally thought. There’s also a touching thread about a sketchbook, bought as a gift from Ginoux, which he proceeded to fill with brown ink sketches. He is shown returning this to Ginoux as a surprise, left on a shelf for her discovery, but she never found it. The sketchbook remained with the family in Arles until it was eventually made public in 2016, although in truth the sketchbook’s authenticity is authoritatively disputed.
Throughout the narrative, Van Gogh is depicted as a visionary, ahead of his time. His ostracisation and mental health problems are central to the narrative, although the film curiously flinches from his bad temper and poor treatment of women. The latter is certainly alluded to – the film is bookended by an encounter with a shepherdess in a country lane who he frightens and perhaps attacks – but that aspect of his character is downplayed, perhaps because Schnabel thought it an unhelpful distraction to his heroic depiction of Van Gogh.
The second layer is Van Gogh’s subjective point-of-view as a tormented artist with a particular way of seeing. This is depicted stylistically, to convey his artistic perspective and his chronic emotional exhaustion.
For me, this is perhaps the most successful element of the film, although I suspect it might be divisive, too mannered for much of the audience. Sometimes the camera assumes the view of a passive observer, with conventional framing and smooth movements. At the other extreme we see through Van Gogh’s eyes, the handheld camera shaky, with an elevated and often beautiful colour palate – the blues and yellows strongly saturated. Curiously, in these sequences the lower half of the frame is distorted and out-of-focus as if heavily smeared in vaseline. This is presumably to emphasise his unique artistic vision, although academics have also suggested his focus and colour perception might have been damaged by his continued exposure to lead paints and by the digitalis medication that Van Gogh took for epilepsy.
There’s yet another perspective, when Schnabel uses handheld camera to view the artist, but with wild and strange movements to convey his mental state. One of the more impressive scenes depicts Van Gogh arriving at his bare rented room in the Arles countryside, anxious yet excited about the new start. The camera swoops around him, rotating and twisting and then dives to a mouse-eyed view of his laced brown boots. He then sets up his easel and begins to paint these very same boots.
Another impressive scene conveys Van Gogh’s absolute panic when his friend Gauguin announces he is leaving for Tahiti. The first half of the scene takes place within a small, empty church, the camera curving figure-of-eights around the columns as Van Gogh gets increasingly disoriented by Gauguin’s honesty. When Van Gogh then runs outside in despair, the camera chases him, the palette turns to greys and lilacs. It effectively expresses Van Gogh’s isolation and despair.
The sound design is equally distinctive. In the churchyard scene, the soundtrack replays fragments of speech, distorted, layered and echoey, as if bouncing around Van Gogh’s head. At other times, chiming piano music accompanies several scenes showing Van Gogh in the countryside when he finds inspiration to paint in the beautiful surroundings. The piano soundtrack booming loud as if to express some sort of transcendence. This device is a little too on-the-nose, and for me it was jarringly obvious and cliched, the artistic euphoria is overdone.
The third layer is a sort of thesis on the essence of art. Over the course of the film, Van Gogh undergoes an evolution of purpose, as he grapples for justification for his art and his compulsive drive to paint.
As a young penniless artist, he paints to capture the fleeting impermanence of nature, preserving it for eternity. The wild flowers he loves will decay and die – they always do – but as the subject of his paintings they have a chance of lasting forever. Later, he considers his art as depicting a more universal meaning, “not to see a landscape but only the eternity behind it”, and that “there cannot be such a thing as nature without there also being a meaning to nature”.
Finally, Van Gogh wrestles with the idea that his art – that all true art, perhaps – is divinely inspired. In a pivotal conversation with the sanatorium’s priest (Mads Mikkelsen, quietly captivating), he ponders “why would God give me the gift to make ugly paintings”, and that a true artist somehow expresses a divine truth or essence.
This artistic manifesto never really convinces, and the film is weaker for it. It’s unconvincingly clunky, superficial and portentious. Schnabel’s film is desperate to portray Van Gogh as a misunderstood genius. It’s true that he was unsuccessful and unpopular through most of his life despite his ubiquity and fame today. However, Schnabel’s film too often winks at the audience as if to say ‘but we, dear viewers, know better’, and this is heavy handed.
The acting is uniformly very strong. Willem Dafoe is excellent as always in this Oscar-nominated role; his existential angst reminded me of his portrayal of Jesus in Scorcese’s The Last Tempation of Christ. Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina, the recent Star Wars films) is captivating as Gauguin, charistmatic, self-important yet the only person who gets close to understanding Van Gogh’s artistic turmoil.
Despite the cliches At Eternity’s Gate never feels tedious, but it does feel self-indulgent in places. Although an impressive sensory experience, it’s ultimately an exercise in style over substance and the film is far less profound than Schnabel’s pretentious choice of title suggests.
Despite Defoe’s excellent depiction, At Eternity’s Gate is painting by numbers.