At Eternity’s Gate
I’ve taken a few shots at the biopic genre as of late, especially the most recent brand, the “standing ovation” biopic that has become one of the most successful non-superhero formulas in the move-making industry. Even just this year, I’ve seen Welcome To Marwen, Fighting With My Family, The Dirt and Gotti all adhere to that formula to varying degrees, and only one of those actually impressed me. 2019 hasn’t been without it’s outside-the-box biopics either in fairness, what with Mary Queen Of Scots and All Is True, but part of the reason I was drawn to see Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate was the promise of a different type of biopic, in form, script and focus, that would, if done correctly, be a refreshing change of pace: certainly there is going to be no standing ovation in a properly done van Gogh biopic. And there is Willem Dafoe of course, who I would dare to venture may actually be a bit undervalued as an actor, with the perfect project to alter some minds on that score. Did it all come together, or is At Eternity’s Gate an eternal slog?
Unhappy in the dingy urban surrounds of Paris, unsuccessful painter Vincent van Gogh (Dafoe) moves to the countryside town of Arles to find inspiration in nature for his post-impressionist work. Dependent on the support of his affectionate brother Theo (Rupert Friend), verbally sparring with friend and peer Paul Gaugain (Oscar Isaac), and dealing with the attentions of the oft-hostile locals, Van Gogh attempts to craft work that straddles the line between joy and pain, and must contemplate the limits of his own sanity in doing so.
At Eternity’s Gate is certainly a unique experience, one that attempts to get inside the head of van Gogh and showcase him to an audience by making its 110 minute running time as disorientating as possible. Schnabel does this by separating his films into numerous chapters, punctuated by blacked-out quotations from van Gogh himself, that do not follow a traditional structure, with narrative jumps back and forth, interjected sequences of van Gogh’s process that do not rightly fit with the rest of the story, and a sense that we are dealing with an unreliable narrator, unreliable because his mental state is not conducive to reliability.
This is the real triumph of At Eternity’s Gate, the way it uses this disorientation – punctuated by dream-like sequences and music being suddenly cut-off, and the sense that van Gogh is never fully aware of his surroundings in a way that we would recognise – to give as memorable and affecting a portrayal of mental illness and emotional anguish as possible. It’s such a unique way of going about things, and marks the film out as less of a biopic or character study, and more of a deep dive into a state of mind, a philosophical discussion on the utility of pain as an artistic cipher, and the merits of perceived divinity in the mundane as a giver of joy (Schnabel does not belabour that point for those worried the film becoming a de facto theological essay, with the most of it coming in a fascinating dialogue between van Gogh and a sympathetic pastor late-on).
This is not a biopic that is seeking to venerate its subject beyond the obvious. I recall the Doctor Who episode “Vincent And The Doctor” from 2010, an excellent piece of television, as being as close to the “standing ovation” formula as you’re likely to get with this subject, but Dafoe’s Vincent van Gogh is an altogether more real person. Aside from the nature of his mental illness and how that makes him almost alien to the viewer, the van Gogh of At Eternity’s Gate is simply unlikable in other ways: gruff, rude, clingy, intentionally dirtying himself to commune with nature, nervous when in conversation with new people, at times almost arrogantly convinced of his own genius, at others distractedly unaware of the same. At Eternity’s Gate does convince us that someone of van Gogh’s obvious ability could be overlooked: at the same time it presents a three-dimensional picture of the man.
It is for Dafoe to make the effort required to bridge the gap between audience and subject, and he does so in what must be regarded as one of his finest ever performances. For much of the film he is alone, sometimes with only his own repeating internal thoughts for company, and Dafoe takes on that burden of expression admirably. The camera is often locked firmly on Dafoe’s face, in portrait style, presumably an attempt to replicate in moving picture form van Gogh’s famous self-portraits. Of course it is impossible to accurately re-make van Gogh’s stunning visages, with their green skin, simple mouth and soul-piercing eyes, but Dafoe and Schnabel make a game attempt, and through the quality of the lead’s showing, we come to understand a little bit more about van Gogh through such things, so as to not be turned off by his more negative characteristics. There was obviously a great connection between actor and director here, and the results speak for themselves.
Dafoe only briefly shares the screen with others, most notably Oscar Isaac’s (isn’t he just popping up everywhere?) Gaugain, a sort of quasi-friend whose presence is at first a balm to van Gogh’s mental state, and later the source of his most potent self-harm, and Rupert Friend as his loving brother, with both men doing a great job without ever detracting from Dafoe. Mads Mikkelsen also impresses in a one-scene appearance late-on, and indeed it is fair to say that the supporting cast, often simply placed opposite Dafoe and left to play off of him, almost benefit from the way that Schnabel keeps his camera locked on the main character, giving them leeway and slack to play with when Dafoe is on a tighter range. Other actors may have struggled with this script, but Dafoe excels, as his discusses the “menacing spirit” of his depression, or the, as he see’s it, divine source of his need to paint (Mikkelsen’s pastor is unconvinced, telling van Gogh his Landscape With Rabbits is “ugly”, wondering how it could be considered divine in any way, typical of what van Gogh faces).
We should also land briefly on Schnabel’s interpretation of history, most notably the circumstances surrounding van Gogh’s death, commonly considered a suicide by gunshot, but with enough curious circumstantial elements to the affair that any reasonable person would be given pause. The idea that van Gogh, incapable of suicide for moral reasons, accepted death as a consequence of the acts of others when he himself could not pull the trigger, does not ring untrue, and the, again, disorientating effect of the sequence adds to that aura of mystery, effectively so.
The director places special emphasis on showing van Gogh actually painting (Dafoe, in at least some cases, did the painting himself, and does a credible job imitating the style of the master) in sequences that straddle the line between hard-boiled reality and quasi fantasy. These are moments where we see van Gogh at both his most intense and most joyful, even when he is simply painting his own tired looking boots. Other painters comment critically on his style, thinking his liberal use of paint make his work more like a sculpture, but there is something very affecting in the way van Gogh outlines his own artistic process, this fiery need to make the image and to make it quickly, so that the bout of inspiration does not pass.
This is as venerated as Schnabel’s van Gogh becomes, through his own words and works, with At Eternity’s Gate a testament to the humanity and and vision of the artist and how this came to be reflected in his paintings, even as his own life and sanity fell apart. Here was a man who saw a field of wilted and dead sunflowers, and decided the only way to save them was a painting that would make their previous beauty eternal, a quest for immortality thorough art that corresponds to the artist himself. In that sense, At Eternity’s Gate is essentially an extension of that line of thought, a piece of art that seeks to, and perhaps succeeds, in immortalising this real, harsh, tender portrayal of van Gogh, to stand forever as a testament to him.
Van Gogh remains, ultimately, a tragic figure, as both the quintessential misunderstood genius and as a socially awkward, mentally disturbed man who may or may not have killed himself, but who certainly welcomed death when it came. Any film approaching such a person must tread warily, lest it diminish his experience by being overly-praising, or sentimentalise it by applying the formula. Thankfully, Schnabel does neither, and cements this as a project worth notice and ovation through the performance of Dafoe, which finds a way to humanise and honour van Gogh without letting us forget his flaws, insecurities or downfall. Uniquely shot and structured, At Eternity’s Gate must be considered one of the medium’s must films of this year, and is a welcome diversion from the by-now standard line of biopics that are cluttering up the prestige picture genre. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of CBS Films).