At Eternity’s Gate, the latest from artist and director Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), is an ode to painter Vincent Van Gogh and his final years of life. The title refers to one of Van Gogh’s paintings, of a mournful old man, bent with head in hands. The film, despite its dark turns, is more a celebration of life, though a shaky one at times.
The film explores Van Gogh’s life from the time he leaves Paris for Arles to his death by gunshot in a hospital in Auvers-sur-Oise. These were highly prolific years for the painter, though anyone familiar with his story knows that this creative abundance, his fecundity of work, did not translate to financial gains. (His paintings were so unloved during his life that a number of works he gifted to friends and acquaintances at the time were given or thrown away.)
Oscar Isaac and Emmanuelle Seigner
This is a story about men. Women in the film, the innkeeper, the landlady — are placeholders. The camera may linger lovingly on them, but they are unnecessary in this tale. A late reference to the notebook the innkeeper gifts to Van Gogh leaves a lasting impression, but the inclusion of the character and performance are notable only for the constancy with which she holds the viewer’s gaze. It’s almost loving in its intimacy. The landlady, on the other hand, is the harried subject of a spontaneous proposition. Sex for money; she’s rightfully dismissive and he has no money. But we are left to wonder, despite the solicitations and lingering gazes, whether Van Gogh’s true love was Paul Gauguin, played with rakish charm by Oscar Isaac. That relationship is the most passionate in the film, the inspiration for the infamous affair with the severed ear.
What is unquestionable is that Van Gogh was in love with the light and color of Southern France. Peripherally At Eternity’s Gate it is a love letter to the French countryside. As the painter captured the movement of the wind in the trees, fields and clouds, Schnabel tries to capture the same through unending camera movement. Unfortunately, it isn’t the best technique for viewing the countryside, and great swathes are obscured by the relentless handheld technique. This may be a reference to the painter’s unsteady mind, but it gets in the way of the storytelling, forcing the viewer to piece together what they’re seeing and hearing.
Willem Dafoe nestles comfortably into the role, residing at the intersection of desperation and inspiration. His take on Van Gogh feels present but uprooted, much like a beautiful but damaged tree he paints before being set upon by a motley gang of primary school students and their harassed teacher. The performance is nuanced and empathetic, unexpectedly tender. Not as natural is the casting of Rupert Friend, 26 years Dafoe’s junior, as Van Gogh’s brother Theo, who was in fact only two years his junior. We don’t see any of the brothers’ strained relationship here, and it was quite strained. Schnabel instead chooses to focus on a loving relationship in which the more successful Theo — a successful art merchant — supports his troubled and impoverished brother, even when he can’t sell any of his pieces.
Schnabel’s direction is intense. The camera is almost always in motion. Sometimes the technique is incredibly effective and evocative, as when ‘walking’ through a field of sunflowers, withered out of season. In that moment it’s like seeing the promise of the great art to come. At other times it’s distracting, bordering on nauseating. If it’s meant to signify Van Gogh’s unquiet mind, it does him disservice by suggesting chaos, despite the deliberation with which we see him work. Some of the finest, loveliest frames are those that show in real time a pen applying ink to paper in Van Gogh’s distinctive style.
When the picture is still here, it’s deeply contemplative — a meditation on the artist and his search for meaning in his art. That is when we see the true beauty of the land that inspired the artist. You can gaze on the French countryside, the contrast of yellow fields and blue skies, and feel as if you’re seeing what Van Gogh saw, a horizon that contains eternity.
Photo credit: Lily Gavin