At Eternity's Gate
A figure such as Vincent Van Gogh is hard to capture in film. The pioneering painter had such a complicated life and artistic process that a simple chronological biopic would not do him justice. An animated picture last year called Loving Vincent was the best film made about the painter as of yet; it used his famous dotted brush-strokes as the style of animation, and focused on a man uncovering the mystery of the painter’s death. A new movie, focusing more on Van Gogh himself, has come out attempting to bring the painter and his mindset closer to viewers.
At Eternity’s Gate tells of Vincent Van Gogh’s (Willem Dafoe) fall into mental illness, we first meet him in northern France, and he later is encouraged by fellow painter Paul Gaugin (Oscar Isaac) to go to the south of France where there is better light. We ensue in seeing Vincent draw inspiration for his unique style and develop his relationship with Gaugin; however, we also see his deteriorating sanity and fall into despair.
Director Julian Schnabel is very focused on trying to have the audience understand Van Gogh’s journey into insanity. For it, he entails very specific camera, sound, and narrative choices that while artistic, end up not only driving Vincent insane, but the audience as well. The camera beautifully captures the natural light that Vincent was so obsessed about, but by choosing to film the entire movie in handheld we get a chaotic and dizzying window into this story. There was also a choice in which the bottom half of the screen would become blurry when showing Vincent’s point of view, this mirrored his deteriorating eye-sight, but it also nauseated the audience. In terms of sound many scenes suddenly repeat the same dialogue but with different deliveries from the actors, this would mirror the voices Vincent would hear in his head, but they also lost the audience in the plot. Small artistic choices in measured amounts would have been gratifying, but the end result of creativity splashed shamelessly on the screen is too much.
For much of the film the technical and artistic choices were distracting, to the point that I would sometimes stop paying attention to the story. However, a brilliant Willem Dafoe is able to grace the screen and every so often remind us that this is a story and a biopic at that. Dafoe inhabits his Vincent with a relatable insecurity at first, and we slowly see him descend into the madness as his style of painting is rejected. It is searing to watch Dafoe give Vincent a tragic hopelessness with infused determination, that what he is creating is truly a gift and unique. Dafoe himself paints in the film, so that the audience gets an idea as to how Van Gogh would begin “freeing” his vision onto the canvas.
At Eternity’s Gate is a very artsy film in many ways, but perhaps this overload of artistic freedom is its greatest weakness. Schnabel is too desperate to show his style so that he loses his narrative strand and the film titters on the verge of collapse. Thankfully, the director has a worthy actor, who brings to life one of history’s greatest painters.