Title: At Eternity’s Gate
Country: Switzerland, Ireland, UK, France, USA
Language: English, French
Genre: Biography, Drama
Director: Julian Schnabel
Music: Tatiana Lisovkaia
Cinematography: Benoît Delhomme
Painter to painter, maverick artist Julian Schnabel’s 5th feature, is a spate of stream-of-consciousness flows attempting to reify the world seen through Vincent Van Gogh’s eyes, played by Willem Dafoe, who possesses a high-fidelity gauntness albeit is far on the wrong side of Van Gogh’s real age.
In AT ETERNITY’S GATE, Schnabel emulates a Malickian freewheeling visual fluidity to concatenate the clumps of events and anecdotes into a loosely chronological narrative of Vincent’s last years, deploying a restive subjective vantage point, ultra close-ups with its subjects often either bisected by amateurish Dutch angles or half blurred, constantly wobbly camera mobility and in one case, a blanched superimposition canalizing Vincent’s direct utterance with his devout but far-off brother Theo (Friend), who takes on the full responsibility to give him financial support and share a touching moment with him in physical propinquity on a hospital bed. Clearly, Schnabel’s own artistic disposition garnishes the film a gentle, poetic feel which, unfortunately never amounts to a full epiphany, and is somehow undercut by the prosaic dialogue, especially when articulated in a contemporary-inflected English by the main cast.
That said, Dafoe is undeniably mesmeric in this painterly incarnation, a tragic peintre maudit ailed by solicitude, hostility, poverty from an unappreciative outside world and an internal urge to reconcile his craft with the divine nature seen through his eyes. The hammer blow that spurs him to cut off his own ear is the desert inflicted by his so-called kindred spirit Paul Gauguin (Isaac), there must be more than just aesthetic discrepancy that creates their falling-out, but Schnabel apparently doesn’t dare to dig up dirt and his focal point never drifts away from an ever-sympathetic Vincent and Dafoe avails himself of his staggering resemblance to create a wandering, aching soul perpetually seeks inspiration and solution in the eternal nature, whereas human interaction remains reductive, BEST ACTOR honor in Venice and Oscar nomination No. 4 are his well-earned rewards.
It is a sure thing that any Schnabel’s work will not disappoint his audience relative to capture the picturesque allure of its landscape, and here his impressionistic endeavor is up to eleven, the rural southern France never looks so vibrantly spellbinding on the screen when nearly every shot is constructed with a dominant chromatic focus that instantly catches a viewer’s attention and begs admiration, concomitant with Tatiana Lisovskaya’s minimalism score (discrete piano clinks alternating with lilting rhythm) that further infuse the film with a modern pertinence that might best reflect Schnabel’s own understanding of Van Gogh’s existential quest.
One has every reason to cavil at the necessity of another Van Gogh biography, and Schnabel’s personal re-imagination might not shed any new light on the well-trodden story (except for contesting that his perdition is not self-inflicted, but a horrific accident), but it has a distinction of its own flair, particularly disposed to those who is bestowed with an artistic bent, and often deviled by an inner conflict between what you envision in your mind’s eye, what is presented in front of your eyes, and what you actually create in front of your eyes, plus, no one should be that callous to deny Mr. Dafoe this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play such a bespoke role, it is his kismet and our pleasure.
referential entries: Schnabel’s THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (2007, 8.1/10), BEFORE NIGHT FALLS (2000, 8.0/10); Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s LOVING VINCENT (2017, 7.5/10).