Bold and challenging portrait of van Gogh

Willem Dafoe in At Eternity’s Gate (IMDB/CBS Films)

At Eternity’s Gate presents a bold and experimental vision of the final years of Vincent van Gogh’s life. Source: ACOFB.

The film boasts an impressive, almost transformative leading turn from reliable Hollywood talent Willem Dafoe, who has been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his efforts.

Director Julian Schnabel is more focused on pulling out his bag of tricks to convey the madness of his subject than creating an easily digestible biopic. It’s far too stylistically in-your-face and strange to be a mainstream film. However, in doing so, Schnabel has in a manner created a fitting ode to the painter famously unappreciated during his own lifetime.

The plot picks up with van Gogh bound for the South of France on the recommendation of his talented peer Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). After the failure of his attempted group show in Paris and sick from too much drinking and his smoker’s cough, van Gogh seeks inspiration in the natural beauty of Arles, which sparked a historically rich period in the painter’s output.

His living arrangement is funded by his art dealing younger brother Theo (Rupert Friend), who pays his expenses in exchange for some of his paintings. Although Theo sees his brother’s talent, he struggles to convert these works into any actual revenue.

After an episode of madness, invoked when the painter is harassed by a class of school children, van Gogh is sent to a hospital. The screenplay does not shy away from van Gogh’s well-documented demons. After his release, Gauguin tells van Gogh that he is “surrounded by stupid, wicked, ignorant people”, and the film certainly portrays van Gogh’s troubles as if they were as much a product of his surroundings as innate elements of his character.

Despite Vincent’s growing reliance on Gauguin, the latter eventually leaves, prompting van Gogh to cut off his own ear. From this point onwards, van Gogh drifts more frequently in and out of the hospital. It’s in one of these stints that he crosses paths with a priest (Mads Mikkelsen), who both wants to assess van Gogh’s capacity to leave the hospital and convey to van Gogh how repellent he finds his art. Their conversation is fascinating, pitting the priest’s dated understanding of faith and beauty against van Gogh’s own spiritualism, itself inextricable from his creativity.

– Reviewed by Callum Ryan, ACOFB

At Eternity’s Gate: Starring Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Niels Arestrup. Directed by Julian Schnabel. 111 minutes. Rated PG (Mild themes and coarse language).


At Eternity’s Gate (ACOFB)


2019 Film Reviews (ACOFB) 

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