Tuesday, December 18, 2018

At Eternity's Gate: A Review


Few painters, at least in my memory, have been such fodder for biopics as our Vincent van Gogh. He is the epitome of the 'tortured artist'. He's been given the lavish biopic treatment in Lust for Life and now we're revisiting him in At Eternity's Gate. While the film is a little too artsy for my tastes, it has two excellent performances and some well-crafted visuals to make it worth seeing.

At Eternity's Gate covers the final years of Vincent van Gogh (Willem Dafoe). He continues to struggle with mental illness as well as with a growing sense of failure. His art is not selling or even drawing much attention. Vincent's ever-loving and loyal brother Theo (Rupert Friend) keeps trying to sell Vincent's work, but he is not as successful as his frenemy, Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac).

Vincent finds himself hounded by schoolchildren, accused of all kinds of evil, and eventually in an asylum. He still continues to work, to try to find that peace and create nature in its reality, until his death. In the film, Vincent's death seems due to an accidental shooting by two teenagers, though whether it was a bungled robbery or just attempts at teasing gone wrong it does not make clear.

Vincent van Gogh dies, and his casket is surrounded by his art. We learn that nearly a century later, in 2016, a ledger containing various sketches had been rediscovered. He had instructed that the ledger be returned to Madame Ginoux (Emmanuelle Siegneur) but she never realized that it was more than a ledger.

Image result for at eternity's gateAt Eternity's Gate is my first encounter with director/co-writer Julian Schnabel, so perhaps the floating camera work and somewhat jumbled manner is par for the course. I think that people who might have thought it would be a more standard biopic might leave a bit if not frustrated a bit puzzled.

However, At Eternity's Gate I don't think was meant to encompass the entirety of van Gogh's life. I think it was more to set a mood, to reflect a more dare I say 'artistic' portrait of the artist as a declining man.

Schnabel sets this mood in the camera work, in the look of At Eternity's Gate, especially in how it echoes van Gogh's great love for yellow. It also does this by giving us many Point-Of-View shots from Vinnie's perspective, especially if he's in conversation with others or us via voiceover.

At Eternity's Gate has the blessing of Willem Dafoe as our creative genius. It's an interesting take on van Gogh: a quieter, more contemplative one than what could have been him ranting and raging all over the place (I'm looking at you, Kirk Douglas). Dafoe's van Gogh is one who wants to feel: the friendship with Gauguin, the bond with Theo, the truth that art can display.

Dafoe is gentle and quiet as van Gogh, a man haunted and hopeful. In other voices, van Gogh's comparing himself to Christ may have come off as either insane or egocentric. With Dafoe's performance, it comes across as almost rational. He does not claim divinity but makes his case that just like Jesus, van Gogh was also preparing for the future to receive him.

At Eternity's Gate is well-acted all around. Dafoe is the standout as befits playing the lead, but there is also strong work from Isaac as Gauguin, who comes across as a calm yet clear-eyed friend, and Friend as the loving and loyal Theo. Even in essentially cameo roles from Mads Mikkelsen as a priest, Mathieu Amarlic as Dr. Gachet and Vincent Perez as the asylum director, all of them do very strong work.

The film also has a moving score by Tatiana Lisovskaya, dominated by piano and violin that sometimes ends abruptly. I figure that reflects Vincent's mind but it almost seems wrong to have such beautiful music cut off so quickly at times.

At Eternity's Gate felt a little slower than its near two-hour running time, and again all that hushed speaking and free-flowing camerawork may prove frustrating. I admit again it was a touch too artsy for me. However, it has another standout performance by Willem Dafoe as this volatile and yet almost innocent artist, one who did impact the world after his death.



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