At Eternity's Gate

Vincent van Gogh took drastic action to avoid distracting noises while painting
7/10 - At Eternity's Gate is a Van Gogh biopic that is erratic like its subject, but full of beautiful moments
Release Date: 
Friday, March 29, 2019
Written by: 

Willem Dafoe gives an incredible performance as troubled painter Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity's Gate.


Vincent van Gogh is one of art's most famous names and yet one of its most enigmatic.

His distinctive paintings fill postcards and make headlines when they sell at auction, but he fits the cliche of the troubled artist; mysterious, mentally unstable and unrecognised in his lifetime.

As such, he's provided a rich palette for filmmakers and actors - from Kirk Douglas' portrayal in 1956's Lust for Life, to the recent hand-painted animation Loving Vincent.

Now, Willem Dafoe, who, like Douglas, received an Oscar nomination for the role, is the latest to play the painter in Julian Schnabel's At Eternity's Gate.

The film focuses on van Gogh's productive final years in the late 1880s, opening, after a brief flashforward, with the painter down but not out in Paris.

Financially supported by his art dealer brother Theo (Rupert Friend), he is very much on the outside of the city's flourishing art scene - shunned by those building fashionable 'schools' to further their artistic styles.

Only Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), shows an interest, recognising in van Gogh's eccentricities and wanton use of bright colours, something of his own restless spirit.

On Gauguin’s advice, the artist travels to Arles in the south of France in search of "better light".

Initially, despite unexpected cold and rain brought by the Mistral winds, van Gogh finds life more agreeable. Away from the city, he is able to allow his mind to wander and find subjects, natural or human, that inspire him.

His increased productivity does not reduce his underlying mania, which causes him to black out or fly into a rage when overstimulated by people.

Gauguin eventually joins him in Arles, but finds his own artistic temperament clashes with his protege's wild mind - an affliction that eventually sees van Gogh institutionalised.

In his film, Schnabel attempts to show the essence of what it was like to be this strange, world famous but enigmatic figure, shooting many scenes in a strange yellow light or creating a halo effect (scholars have speculated the artist's unique style may be due to an eye problem).

A dreamy piano score plays over multiple scenes where he wanders through fields looking for a moment that sparks his imagination, while others try to recreate the moments of inspiration when he immortalised certain landscapes, people and, perhaps most famously, wilting sunflowers.

It is At Eternity's Gate's (which is named after van Gogh's oil painting of a man in despair) human moments that are most affecting and heartbreaking though, and not just because of Dafoe's astonishing manic but measured performance.

In these, like an altercation with a shepherdess he asks to pose for him but scares when his madness descends, the film goes beyond the cliche of the tortured artist and captures the personal despair of mental illness.

It's a theme found in how the film deals with van Gogh's most notorious moment - chopping off of his ear and presenting it to a prostitute.

Schnabel does not show the incident on screen but shows the artist in the bandages he wore for one of his most famous self-portraits discussing his actions with a doctor.

It is difficult yet fascinating to watch his childlike attempt to rationalise his self-mutilation while simultaneously coming to terms with why everyone is so concerned.

There are flaws, however. Isaac is not his usual charismatic self as Gauguin - perhaps overpowered by Dafoe's tour de force - while Schnabel occasionally strays into giving us an unnecessary guided tour of van Gogh's works.

His mysterious death at 37 is also dealt with in a way that seems at odds with the movie's themes, as Schnabel furthers the controversial modern theory that the troubled painter' death was not suicide, as long believed, in a fairly abrupt way.

It means that At Eternity's Gate is an uneven, but worthy new portrait of the artist. It’s worth seeing for Dafoe's performance alone.

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