I didn’t think we needed another movie about Vincent Van Gogh, an artist whose life and work have been bewitching auteurs for decades. He’s already received a splashy Hollywood melodrama (Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life), its shambolic, de-dramatized opposite (Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh), and Robert Altman’s meditation on Van Gogh’s relationship with his brother (Vincent & Theo), which splits the difference between these approaches. All have merit, even 2017’s gimmicky Loving Vincent, an animated memory film drawn in the artist’s phantasmagoric palette.
But none have placed us inside Van Gogh’s head — escorting us through the ghosts and demons and psychedelic colors that bind and blind him — quite like Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate. It’s a rapturous and singular film, awash in the drunken balm of Van Gogh’s creativity and just as alive to the debilitating forces that compelled it. We know that Van Gogh’s legacy is a tightrope dance between agony and ecstasy, between madness and genius. Other films have shown this; Schnabel’s is the first to make us truly experience it.
Like Pialat’s biopic, Schnabel’s focus is on the artist’s twilight in Arles, Bouches-du-Rhône and Auvers-sur-Oise, which witnessed both his trailblazing evolution as a painter and his concomitant mental decline. Stagnating in Parisian obscurity at the movie’s outset, Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) relocates to the south of France under the recommendation of fellow artist-revolutionary Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), and is soon entranced by its natural light and breathtaking vistas.
At Eternity’s Gate was shot on location, and these landscapes, seemingly undisturbed over the past 130 years, indeed look ravishing under cinematographer Benoît Delhomme’s lens. The film is tactile in its presentation of the elements: There’s a mesmerizing sequence tracking Vincent’s feet as they stride in and around blades of grass and fields of wheat and flowers; we can all but imbibe their scents and feel them grazing against our legs.
And yet we can hardly presume an objective presentation of nature. So much of the film is shot from Vincent’s point of view, a vision that is both blurry — in the POV shots, the bottom half of the frame is muddled, as if he were gazing through bifocals — and hyperreal, the landscapes tinted in bold blues and luminary yellows. This radical subjectivity carried the entirety of Schnabel’s Diving Bell and the Butterfly; here, it’s one part of a ravishing tone poem, an existential journey toward a vanishing point.
Schnabel’s camera, intoxicating when following Vincent’s brushstrokes, is equally immersive when probing his breakdowns, invasively observing the artist’s mania and depression, his doubts and anxieties. He doesn’t show us the notorious ear incident, but we see Van Gogh negotiate its aftermath with a soft-spoken physician. He describes dark forces controlling his actions, and thoughts of suicide. “There’s something inside me,” he says later, “and I don’t know what it is.” That something, that’s killing him like a slow leak in a tire, is also the force compelling his artwork — which is, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the rub. This Van Gogh, even in his moments of irrationality, seems to know this.
In addition to its visual derring-do, At Eternity’s Gate is a transcendent film in its spoken language as well. We eavesdrop on intellectually nourishing debates between Van Gogh and Gauguin on nature and beauty, and the role of the artist as translator and inventor of such. A lengthy sanitarium discourse between Van Gogh and a priest, played by Mads Mikkelsen, explores the artist’s work in a religious context in which the secular painter — and onetime Protestant missionary — expands the perspectives of the initially dismissive man of the cloth.
Schnabel wrote the script with Louise Kugelberg and Jean-Claude Carrière, the latter of whom penned many of Buñuel’s masterpieces. It’s Carrière’s hand, I would imagine, that’s responsible for the movie’s enriching dialogue, which wouldn’t sound out of place in the philosophical biopics of late Rossellini (i.e. Socrates, Blaise Pascal). You could quibble with the directness of some of the diction, but Van Gogh himself was fond of arch musings. His last words, according to Theo, were “The sadness will last forever.”
With all due respect to Tim Roth’s career-best intensity in Altman’s film, Dafoe’s portrayal is arguably the most vulnerable, broken Vincent yet put to celluloid — and because he appears so cognizant of his decline, its presentation is that much more wrenching that in previous Van Gogh movies. Dafoe is a wild-eyed, feral actor to begin with, and At Eternity’s Gate plays to his haunted, nervy strengths.
But make no mistake: Schnabel is the star here. From its experimental POV photography to its aural experiments — at Vincent’s most untethered, conversations replay in his mind with the persistence of pesky cranial insects — At Eternity’s Gate is among the most adventurous narrative features of recent years. The coup de grace of subjectivity arrives at the end, in which Van Gogh’s apparent suicide is treated like never before on celluloid — taking a familiar flameout and lighting it anew.
AT ETERNITY’S GATE. Director: Julian Schnabel; Cast: Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner; Distributor: CBS Films; Opens: Friday at Coral Gables Art Cinema, Movies of Lake Worth, Movies of Delray, and the Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale.