At Eternity’s Gate, 2018.
Directed by Julian Schnabel.
Starring Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Niels Arestrup, Anne Consigny, Amira Casar, Vincent Pérez, and Lolita Chammah.
A look at the life of painter Vincent van Gogh during the time he lived in Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise, France.
Being the second film in as many years (neither of which are the first and probably will not be the last) to analyze letters and accepted truths while offering up interpretations to the bizarre events rooted in psychological trauma that plagued the final stretch of Vincent van Gogh’s unfortunately short-lived life, At Eternity’s Gate makes for a good companion piece to last year’s Loving Vincent. And I don’t say that just because they tread familiar territory, but more so considering that they are both highly experimental and artistic accomplishments waving away any semblance of conventional storytelling. Such an approach is fitting with a complex mind like Vincent van Gogh, likely tempting fans of the celebrated painter to put together a supercar of the two films.
For the uninformed, in Vincent’s final days he hung around a small French village known for its exquisite nature and vast calming landscapes. Aside from completing nearly 80 paintings in as many days, he befriended Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) as the two of them tried to get to the bottom of Vincent’s inspirations. Often critical of his work for slathering on so much paint they resemble sculptures, Vincent ignores the negativity and compulsively does whatever his mind tells him to, which could also be a literal voice inside of his whacked out but nevertheless unparalleled brilliant artistic sensibilities.
He was consumed to the point of obsession with nature, which director Julian Schnabel (the Oscar-nominated acclaimed French filmmaker most known for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is using as the basis for his examination of the historical figure, even more so than the commanding and impeccably delicate turn from the great Willem Dafoe (that narrow Oscar loss last year for The Florida Project seems to have ignited a fierce fire underneath the actor’s feet, here taking admittedly an award-bait role but not without making it one of his all-around best performances), who seems like an odd choice at first glance until witnessing how superb he is at selling the mentally unsound body language.
The cinematography is frequently claustrophobic, honing in on faces so close you can practically make out the finer details of every pore and wrinkle within Willem’s facial structure, and shakily swirls around as if the cameraman is stumbling around drunk. There is also an elegance to the shot compositions and tracking nature hikes that evoke a documentary more so than a narrative feature; at times you feel like you’re watching a tourist attraction for late 19th century France but it relates to the central subject at hand. Still, this is Terrence Malick levels of cinematic self-indulgence, containing multiple shots fixated on Vincent’s feet walking through the terrain or equally boring bits seeing him cover his own face in the dirt. Half the time you expect a narrator to break into the proceedings given the presentation and overall nothingness going on masquerading as deep intellectualism. Aesthetically, the experience is a mixed bag of ideas that don’t always pay off, but it’s hard to deny that there is beauty in many of the surroundings
Occasionally, At Eternity’s Gate does break away from abstract storytelling for one-on-one dialogue exchanges with various characters played by a wide array of serviceable supporting actors. Wisely, the script (also by Julian Schnabel alongside a few others) never drifts away from talking about not just the paintings specifically, but the craft behind Vincent’s art and the unsettling thoughts that compelled him to keep pushing forward against all optimism. It also strays away from depicting the infamous cutting off his own ear as a sacrificial gift for some unnecessary violent entertainment, in order to focus on the aftermath, a dialogue with a therapist surrounding what may have caused him to do such a thing. There’s also another fascinating segment with a priest played by Mads Mikkelsen where Vincent slowly becomes infatuated with the idea that his plight is comparable to that of Jesus Christ.
Every strange encounter before Vincent’s eventual death is here, but it never amounts to much besides an actor’s showcase for Willem Dafoe. With that said, there’s no denying that the scenery and atmosphere is serene and relaxing, and not in the kind of way that makes the viewer want to fall asleep. You feel like you’re there with Vincent, and not just because a first-person perspective is sporadically employed, but because the direction is just as obsessed with his mental state as he is with putting his own mental images to an easel. That’s all fine, but At Eternity’s Gate can’t find a purpose for any of it, so don’t worry if you are denied entry. It’s filmmaking craft over substance.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com