D: Julian Schnabel / 111m
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Neils Arestrup, Anne Consigny, Amira Casar, Vincent Perez
In 1888, and with his work not gaining the attention he feels it deserves, Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (Dafoe) decides to leave Paris for the rural town of Arles, where he can sketch and paint without all the distractions of city life to hinder him. Backed by his brother, Theo (Friend), Vincent lives in the Yellow House, and soon begins producing a prodigious amount of work. An extended stay by Paul Gauguin (Isaac) is, at first, welcomed by Vincent, but it soon becomes clear that the two men have very different ideas about art, and that the friendship Vincent is looking for – along with Gauguin’s respect – isn’t going to develop. Eventually, Gauguin leaves, and in a fugue state, Vincent severs his left ear. Now more isolated than ever, Vincent spends time being assessed as to the suitability of his being released from hospital, and though his behaviour, and the possibility of more manic episodes can’t be dismissed, he appears rational enough to return to Arles. But Vincent is still plagued by doubts and worries, and he eventually moves to Auvers-sur-Oise, where a tragic fate awaits him…
Covering the last two years of van Gogh’s life, At Eternity’s Gate (the title is taken from a painting the artist made during his last year) is not your average portrait of a suffering, unappreciated artist. Instead it’s a movie that does its best to make the viewer understand the depth of van Gogh’s passion for painting, and which does so thanks to a combination of Benoît Delhomme’s glorious cinematography, and director (and co-screenwriter with Jean-Claude Carrière and Louise Kugelberg) Julian Schnabel’s own artistic sensibilities. Here, the viewer is allowed to immserse themselves in the details of van Gogh’s paintings and sketches, and to gain a sense of the passion that drove van Gogh to create such a unique body of work. Whether it’s a still life, or a landscape, van Gogh’s commitment and drive is readily apparent, and Schnabel uses a number of visual and aural tricks to help us get inside the head of a man who wasn’t always comfortable with his own thoughts. This makes our engagement with van Gogh a little intrusive but also highly instructive: he’s a man tormented by his personal demons, but also an artistic genius because of them.
Van Gogh is played with a masterly brio by Dafoe, the actor displaying a rare skill in inhabiting the character, and in doing so, bringing him to life in ways that are surprising and profound. It’s as if Dafoe has found a way of channelling van Gogh’s own spirit and energy (and his mania), and as a result, it’s a performance that is often mesmerising for its empathy and understanding of just how tortured and driven van Gogh was. Dafoe is ably supported by Friend and Isaac, and there’s a tremendous supporting turn from Mikkelsen as the priest who gets to decide if van Gogh can be released from hospital (their one scene together is the movie’s highlight), but even with all these pin sharp interpretations, it’s Schnabel’s distinctive handling of the material that stands out the most. This is Schnabel’s own idea as to how van Gogh existed in the last two years of his life, and though it’s based on fact, the movie remains an imagining, an artistic depiction of how Schnabel views the van Gogh of that period – just as van Gogh depicted what he saw and made it his own. Often very, very beautiful to watch, and with much to say about the nature of art and its relation to us as individuals, this is easily Schnabel’s best movie since The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), and a fitting tribute to van Gogh and his work.
Rating: 9/10 – with a peerless performance from Dafoe, and Schnabel providing a masterclass in how to depict artistic expression on film, At Eternity’s Gate is a small miracle of arthouse movie making; moving and sincere, it’s the kind of endeavour that will always struggle to reach a wider audience, but for those who are willing to give it a try, it’s one of the most rewarding movies of 2018.