Van Gogh Biopic ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ Reviewed

by Koom Kankesan

I recently watched Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate (starring Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh) about van Gogh’s last years, focusing on his time in Arles. It’s a beautiful film and the filmmaker (who is an artist himself and often makes biopic-style films with art-centred subjects) obviously loves his subject. Many of the van Gogh paintings we know and love are from this period in Arles in the south of France. As Gaugin (played wonderfully and restlessly by Oscar Isaac) tells van Gogh in the film, “go South,” and leave Paris where the scenes are cold and grey.

The light is indeed wonderful there, and van Gogh is inspired to capture the light and visions he sees, but the people are not. He continually tries to get by, often with very little money except for that which his art dealer and brother Theo can send him, hobbles around with holes in his boots, carrying his canvases and painting utensils on his back, and vies with people who do not get his art or what he’s trying to do.

It’s a fine and sympathetic portrayal of van Gogh and I hope Dafoe gets the Oscar he’s nominated for. He’s been nominated for supporting roles in the past but has never won to my knowledge; sometimes the Academy gives an actor the award because it’s his or her ‘time’ and this is an opportune moment as Dafoe’s in his sixties now. What I like about Dafoe’s body of work is that he picks varied roles but they’re always interesting and personal choices. A writer once led off an article about him with the title ‘Da Friend or Da Foe’, the thesis being that he plays either very nuanced sympathetic characters or over the top charismatic villains. That might be true, but he belongs to a tradition of actors like Gene Hackman and Max von Sydow who could play big and small roles equally well, and shone brightest when working on character studies. The casting of Dafoe as Jesus in Martin Scorsese‘s The Last Temptation of Christ is an inspired and unusual choice that resulted in a performance I can watch and puzzle over again and again.

I realized, when watching this film, that I did not really know a lot about van Gogh except that he was tortured. The version of him in Don McLean’s song ‘Starry, Starry Night.’ I always thought that van Gogh cut off his ear for a woman but the film suggests that he only presented it to a woman, that he asked her to give the ear to Gaugin, whom he didn’t want to leave Arles. I also didn’t know that van Gogh attempted to paint his works in a single sitting, in a single day, so as to catch the immediacy of the vision, its power and blinding light. This makes sense when one looks at the works.

I don’t know that there’s a whole lot that one would learn about the artist, in terms of information, from the film. Despite the beauty that Schnabel aspires to, he sort of plays it safe with the artistic heroes he biographs – there are a lot of scenes of van Gogh simply walking through fields, through nature, the use of the Steadicam (or whatever has replaced the Steadicam these days – my friend referred to it as ‘too much GoPro’) more present than the character himself. This can get a little tiresome. It replicates van Gogh’s artistic vision and use of colour but a film I like better, which attempts something akin to that even though it’s not really similar, is Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams.
A segment in Dreams has a Japanese painter, an admirer of Van Gogh’s, step into the van Gogh paintings while observing them in an art gallery. To show Kurosawa’s love for these paintings, the master filmmaker lovingly recreates various paintings as scenes with an incredible use of colour and fidelity (though of course, their blurry impressionistic nature eludes him somewhat in the focused images on film – and perhaps this is why Schnabel resorts to the ever bouncing Steadicam). Eventually, the Japanese admirer in Dreams finds van Gogh furiously painting in a field and the impressionist icon tells the admirer about his philosophy of painting, never ceasing to paint, even while conversing in rapid fire delivery. And who plays van Gogh in this segment? None other than Martin Scorsese!
The episodes of van Gogh’s travails with mental health, dealing with others, and especially the tender scenes with his brother Theo are what I liked best about the film. These were gentle and I wish there were more of them. One in particular where Theo climbs into the hospital bed to comfort his brother, after having taken the train down to see him, was especially touching. Being a writer (and artist of a kind), these were all things I could relate to in the artist’s journey and I suppose these are all elements which make van Gogh endearing to his admirers. The combination of unique brilliance, determination and vision, while facing a dearth of sympathy or understanding, the bearing of suffering, of having to live in one’s time. They all make for a very romantic story.

But I feel myself dissatisfied with this formula. This romance only serves to make us happy in the end, pleasantly reassured through sadness. Vindicated somehow. We find pleasure in the sad tragedy – the same soft operatic strokes as the Christ story – but it is not so good for the person undergoing the mental and artistic tragedy. It is really sad, not just softly sad. For all the van Goghs who are recognized after their demise, their art adorning coffee mugs and being sold in auctions for millions of dollars, there are many artists and would-be artists who simply suffer. Being an artist and suffering from mental and emotional illness seem to go hand in hand. It certainly hasn’t spared me in its unfathomable recombination. Well, what else is there to say about these things? Nothing new on my end anyway.
Watch the film – it hits the right notes and will make you feel all the right things in in all the appropriate ways.

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