Lou Harry’s more than 40 books include Creative Block (Running Press), The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures (Quirk Books), and the novelization of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. His produced plays include Midwestern Hemisphere, The Pied Piper of Hoboken and Popular Monsters.
In spite of a title that sounds like it fell off the shortlist for a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, At Eternity’s Gate breathes beautiful, thoughtful life into an oft-told biographical tale.
Vincent van Gogh’s torturous stint on Earth and his after-death success have certainly been dramatized before. From the Kirk Douglas-starring Vincente Minnelli prestige flick Lust for Life through the video of Leonard Nimoy in the one-man play Vincent (check it out on Amazon Prime) and Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo up to last year’s obsessively animated Loving Vincent, there’s no shortage of van-Gogh-centric films from which to pick.
So why add another to this worthy field?
Dodging the 1950s biopic conventions of Minnelli’s take and bypassing the scope of Altman’s, Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate makes its case through a combination of gorgeous scenic design and a central performance by Willem Dafoe that emphasize both van Gogh’s artistic drives and his need for connectivity. As important, the film is permeated with a strong sense of the moment — the convergence point of man, subject, paint and canvas when these elements combine into art — that is rarely achieved in films about artists.
Intimate more than epic, At Eternity’s Gate covers the last few years of van Gogh’s life, roughly beginning from van Gogh’s connection with fellow artist Paul Gauguin (in a proportioned, leave-you-wanting-more performance by Oscar Isaac) through his death in 1890. Schnabel dodges obvious drama, allowing his characters instead to engage in discussions about art that may seem pretentious to some but felt natural to me for these characters.
Of course, the touchstone moments are there (the ear, the gunshot that led to van Gogh’s death), but Schnabel and a pair of additional screenwriters wisely navigate around them, allowing for the ambiguity history has assigned to his story. The film is less concerned with what happened as with how it felt to create, and at that it excels.
With a little less restlessness, the film could have had risen to the visual level of the best of Terrence Malick’s work. I wanted the camera to slow down and allow me to contemplate and absorb the landscapes as van Gogh does. Instead, the handheld work of cinematographer Benoit Delhomme often had me wishing someone had bought the guy a Steadicam for his birthday.
Dafoe — a few decades old for the part but not to the film’s detriment — walks a fine line between vision and madness, grasping the often torturous nature of both. Kudos to the casting department for lining up a supporting cast woven into the scenic design without ever seeming like props. I particularly enjoyed Mathieu Amalric as Dr. Paul Gachet. If you don’t recognize the name, trust me, you’d recognize his van Gogh-immortalized portrait.
And that’s part of the lingering echo of the film — the knowledge that these people, these roots, these rooms, these flowers — are long gone, but their images remain. Thanks to a very real, also gone, man.