At Eternity's Gate - Review

A moving picture of sorrow through the life of Vincent Van Gogh.

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Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate occupies a space where there is little to no precedent. Foregoing traditional storyboard guidelines in favor of random shot orders, a lead performance based almost entirely on facial expression, and the use of vast chunks of time to communicate the lack of communication in Van Gogh’s life are all at play. There are very few moments that feel unnecessary, weighty, or important: everything flows together as one, culminating in something that feels less like a film, and more like a living portrait.

This film sets Vincent between his period in Arles until his untimely death, considered either a suicide or murder in this version. Van Gogh often explains that he sees things, things that we as the audience have no way of knowing are fake: we simply believe what we are seeing. This makes Van Gogh’s style of painting much easier to understand, as we come to realize the differences between he and his peers. Two painters, Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) and Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) see a landscape, and through an intense explanation, Vincent relays what he sees in it. Gauguin represents the skeptics, those who saw little artistic value in Van Gogh’s view of nature, and instead encourages him to paint inside, to focus more on his mind’s eye. It’s a bit on the nose at points, seeing all these people hammer Van Gogh’s style into the ground, knowing they would all eventually come to acclaim it. The conversations between Van Gogh and his associates are compelling, revealing scenes that allow a glimpse into the torn psyche of such a brilliant mind. His social skills, like many artists, are weathered, and in constant need of replenishment, which he receives in painting. However, it’s when Van Gogh is alone on a hilltop, or running through a wheat field that feel the most revealing. His inner child is expressed as he seeks adventure, and hopes to capture it as quickly as he can. To his mind there is nothing that cannot be made into art, even the snarled roots of a tree. It often seems as if the entire world is against him, which makes the moments of catharsis all the more important. Watching one of the most joyful painters to ever live run through a field of bright yellow flowers is a life giving experience.

For the cinematography, the camera plays an interesting role. For much of the first half, extreme close ups cave in on Van Gogh, to the point where breath starts to fog up the lense. These moments break the barrier between artist and audience, making us feel as if we are not only in the room, but a part of it. The camerawork is fast, jittery, and at times blurry, as Van Gogh runs ahead or pauses in frustration over a difficult opportunity. It reflects his view of the world brilliantly, with a focus on speed and nature above everything. A key scene between Van Gogh and Gauguin interlays multiple shots from the same scene, playing in such a way that it is difficult to tell what is happening in reality. This kind of editing can be confounding at first glance, but Schnabel lets us rest in it for long enough to understand its relevance. Emotions impact Van Gogh in a different way than most, reeling him to another plane in which he has no concept of civility or of himself. These scenes can be difficult to watch, as we view the inevitable breakdown of a mentally ill man, in a time when very little was known about the subject. Scenes taking place in the various asylums he occupied are dark, colorless, everything Van Gogh was against in painting, which goes to show how damaged he became from a place meant to help him. His death is imminent from the second he is forced to stay indoors at the first asylum, removing him from his only real connection with God and spirituality. There is real hurt in Van Gogh’s face as he drudges through this period, only to be let out and allowed to re-experience the joy of his talents. Dafoe’s acting is as bold as it is subdued, told nearly entirely through facial expressions and paintings. The red beard, the straw hat, these are humble additions to legitimize an actor who embodies everything that made Van Gogh. There are other actors in this film, including a notably great performance from Mads Mikkelsen, but there is no story without Dafoe. His leaps, climbs, sobbs, and brushstrokes all come from the same place, the deep sorrow that yields the purest joy. If there is any one way to summarize a film like At Eternity’s Gate, it is that: it is the greatest joy, from the darkest corner of sorrow.