At Eternity’s Gate-2018
Scott’s Review #944
Reviewed October 9, 2019
At Eternity’s Gate (2018) is a journey into the mind of one of the most tortured painters of all time- Vincent van Gogh. The film focuses on only the final years of the artists life and the events leading up to his death. Inventive direction by visionary Julian Schnabel creates an isolated and majestic world amid a feeling of being inside Van Gogh’s mind. Though slow-moving, Willem Dafoe gives a brilliant performance, eliciting pathos from its viewers.
The time-period is 1888 as Van Gogh travels to Paris to meet his good friend and fellow painter, Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), an equally tortured individual. They share ideas and qualms about Paris life as Gauguin convinces Van Gogh to travel to the south of France though his brother Theo (Rupert Friend) resides in Paris. Fluctuating scenes occur of Van Gogh’s relationship with a prostitute, a woman he meets on a country road and obsesses over, and his complex relationships with both Theo and Gauguin.
Dafoe, a legendary actor recognized for this role with an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, is one of the best components of At Eternity’s Gate. He engulfs Van Gogh with a constant state of emotional exhaustion and dissatisfaction. As he becomes attached to Gauguin, who ends up leaving him, Dafoe so eloquently emits his quiet depression, seeming to have nobody left in his life. As he violently chops off his ear as a show of loyalty to Gauguin, the mental hospital awaits him. All these complex emotions Dafoe carries with a calm grace and dignity.
Schnabel, known mostly for groundbreaking Oscar nominated work for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), has a beautiful technique. Providing even the darkest scenes with a lovely and sometimes dizzying camera effect, he adds frequent scenes of blurred focus with close-ups of his characters. A painter himself, the result is a magical interpretation with colors and framed scenes. Many of his films focus on a real-life study and Van Gogh is a great choice by the director.
The French landscape is lovely and culturally significant to the experience. The busy and robust Parisian lifestyle juxtapositions nicely against scenes of the lavish countryside, presumably north and south of the City of Light. When Van Gogh quietly sits and paints numerous canvases of still objects- a bush or a tree, the flavorful colors come through against the landscape, and burst with natural beauty. The cinematography is excellent.
The main detraction to At Eternity’s Gate is the slow, or should I say snail’s pace. At only one hour and fifty-three minutes the entire length of the film feels much, much longer. Viewing the film on an international flight may or may not have influenced this note, but the story seems to drag on endlessly, though the beautiful aspects outweigh the boring scenes.
The mental health aspect and the encouragement Van Gogh receives to get better and heal seem a bit too modern a method for late nineteenth century. This may have been incorporated as an add-on to current and relevant issues to be given exposure, but while inspiring it does not seem to fit the film either. This is a small criticism I noticed.
Bordering on the art film genre, At Eternity’s Gate (2018) is a sad depiction of a disturbed man’s lonely existence creating art that would not be recognized as genius until after his death. A slow film, it uses gorgeous camera shots and lovely snippets of Vincent van Gogh’s works to seem poetic. The film is not for everyone and is not a mainstream Hollywood experience, but rather a quiet biography of one of the greats.