At Eternity’s Gate
Directed by Julian Schnabel. Screenplay by Julian Schnabel, Jean-Claude Carrière and Louise Kugelberg. Starring Willem Dafoe, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Rupert Friend. Length 110 minutes.
The final years of Vincent Van Gogh: the friendship with Paul Gauguin, his relationship with his brother Theo, the lock-up in Saint Rémy hospital up to his death.
Van Gogh, the painter who, in a few years of life, left innumerable sketches and drawings, unable to sell any of them before his death, possesses a timeless charm.
His paintings have inspired the imagery of artists for over a century. Yet when faced with a painter like Van Gogh it is difficult to believe that a feature film could conjure up the art, the restlessness, the loneliness and the madness of this unique figure.
This is the difficult task that Julian Schnabel takes on with At Eternity’s Gate.
Schnabel, a director known for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, before working behind the camera worked (and continues to work) as a painter, and would know the magnitude of the task.
And perhaps only he, an artist and director, who made his debut in cinema in 1996 with a film about Jean-Michel Basquiat, the most famous graffiti artist of our century, could take on the challenge that this movie entails.
The heart of the Schnabel filmic operation can be understood by looking at the movie’s title, which evokes Van Gogh's painting from two months before his death: Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity's Gate).
Chosen to compete in Venice and awarded for the great performance of Willem Dafoe in the role of the painter, the film does not have the typical features of a biopic or a documentary like Loving Vincent, or Van Gogh: of Wheat Fields and Clouded Skies.
At Eternity's Gate is, rather, a look at the restless man, at the painter who paints the world as he sees it and does so even if misunderstood by his contemporaries.
Music invades the images (perhaps one of the film's unforgivable stylistic flaws) and Van Gogh, now a 32-year-old painter, leaves Holland. In Paris, in a bar, he meets Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), the friend with whom he will share perseverance and passion in the search for subjects to paint.
In scene after scene, we witness an emotional story; sunflowers, women, self-portraits and light enter, affecting viewers, who feel part of the creative process. And then the details are contextualized: the stay in the town of Arles, the cutting of the ear (for love?), the hospital stay in Saint Rémy, and finally death at the hands of two young thieves in 1890.
All these elements have been retrieved from the lengthy correspondence between Vincent and his brother Theo (played by Rupert Friend in the film), owner of an art gallery, and from the book Van Gogh: The Life that rejects Van Gogh’s death by suicide and restores the hypothesis of the artist’s murder.
Schnabel's camera seems to possess Van Gogh’s eyes, heart and mind. And it distances itself only when he is not the only subject in the scene.
In the dialogues with his brother, who financed Vincent, in the confrontation with the doctors (featuring Mathieu Almaric), the film seems to take another path: explaining what is happening to the painter until it becomes a sterile contraposition, as when Van Gogh talks with the priest (the Danish Mads Mikkelsen).
And if it’s possible to catch a glimpse of the hand that has been able to restore strength amidst the disease (as in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), the film’s limit is in failing to create a compact story. Instead, it seems to excessively explain away the events of Van Gogh's life (as can be guessed even from the fixed frame of the camera in many of the dialogues) and distract the viewer from the poetry of creation and the fragility of the imagination of an artist. An artist kept alive by his brother's affection, who deserved more understanding and more support from those around him.
Problematic elements: Some tough scenes before the admission at the hospital, and a brief, hinted-at rape scene.