Movie Review: Biography/Drama – At Eternity’s Gate
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Written by Jean-Claude Carriére, Julian Schnabel, and Louise Kugelberg
Starring Willem Dafoe, Oscar Isaac, Rupert Friend, and Mathieu Amalric
There’s a revelatory sequence in Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate in which Willem Dafoe, as the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, romps through the fields of Arles, France like an ecstatic child. He lies on the ground, breaking dry clods of soil onto his face, and stretches his arms out among the plants, as if becoming one with the wind – a mating of sorts, with nature, which he paints with a furious passion. It’s a beautiful illustration of the painter’s desire to experience that which he paints, a desire the director, a renowned painter himself, understands innately. Schnabel rose to fame as an artist in the 1980s with his wonderful “plate paintings,” consisting mostly of portraits painted on canvases of broken ceramic plates that literally made them three-dimensional.
In 1996, Schnabel released the first of his six films as a director, Basquiat, a knockout biography of his 80s New York art scene peer, the doomed graffiti artist and junkie, Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose politically charged neo expressionist works set the art world ablaze and made him a darling of the glitterati. His next two films, Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, earned multiple Oscar nominations, including one for Schnabel himself as best director. In At Eternity’s Gate, his new film about Vincent van Gogh, the artist’s life is explored from the laser-focused perspective of the film’s subject. It’s presented as a subjective experience and much, if not most, of its content is speculative. In fact, this may be one of the most subjective biographies ever made. But that subjectivity isn’t just van Gogh’s, it’s Schnabel’s as well.
“Everybody wants to get on the van Gogh boat,” a critic in Basquiat writes. “There’s no trip so horrible that someone won’t take it.” At Eternity’s Gate follows the final years of that horrible trip, covering Vincent’s move in 1888 to the small countryside town of Arles, in the south of France, to paint the sunny landscapes. There, in a flurry of obsessive creation, he produced hundreds of his most celebrated paintings in a period of just over 14 months. The film adheres to popular theories about his life and odd behavior, some of them accepted by traditional historians, some of them not. It speculates about his well-documented mental illness, likely depression or bipolar disorder exacerbated by alcoholism, and the alleged visual problems that many modern critics and medical professionals have used to explain the unusual predominance of the color yellow in his paintings, as well as the halo effect most famously seen in his beloved painting “The Starry Night.” These explainations include everything from lead and absinthe poisoning to digitalis, a medication that, taken in excess, can cause a yellowing of vision; and eye conditions such as retinal swelling, glaucoma, and cataracts. Schnabel effectively uses various POV effects to express these issues including black screens to portray his blackout incidents, multiple exposures and repeated dialogue dubs to illustrate his mental confusion, and a clever, if annoying, blurring of the bottom half of the screen in the film’s later scenes to visualize his alleged eye issues.
The film also imagines many of the artist’s conversations and internal experiences. There are a couple of particularly striking scenes that illustrate his strangling, almost claustrophobic discomfort around strangers which leads to panic attacks and generates fear in those around him. One of those episodes lands him in a mental hospital, where he’s visited by his brother Theo. We know the two men were very close as evidenced by their many letters and that Theo, an art dealer, supported Vincent through much of his sad life. The film imagines a lovely scene of the two laying in the bed of the hospital where Theo (Rupert Friend) has come to visit. Vincent lies, in an almost fetal position in his brother’s arms as the two quietly talk about the uncertainties of his illness and his life, Theo all the while gently caressing his hair. The scene is profoundly intimate, the camera moving in tight, capturing only parts of their faces, and giving viewers the feeling of invading the characters’ personal space. Much of the film creates this sense of being drawn in uncomfortably close. Vincent feels suffocated and it’s as if we, the observers, are part of the problem.
Other scenes seem to have a more instructional purpose. There’s a fascinating conversation in which Vincent discusses his art with fellow post-impressionist, Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), a man with whom, it has been suggested, he had a one-sided, obsessive friendship. The two discuss their philosophies in creating art. Gauguin acts as the critic, complaining about Vincent’s technique of “over-painting,” that is, building up the paint on the canvas so that it protrudes from the surface. “It looks like it’s made out of clay,” he exclaims. “It’s more like sculpture than painting.” This of course is one of the qualities that so many of today’s critics and admirers of van Gogh, including Schnabel, consider so remarkable about his work. This is the director giving us his own personalized class in art and the art of van Gogh, an artist whose work clearly influenced his own. Schnabel’s broken plates rise from the surface almost like bas-relief sculptures, much in the same fashion as van Gogh’s caked-on layers of paint.
In another part of the conversation, Gauguin complains of Vincent’s lack of planning. “You paint too fast,” he complains in exasperation, but Schnabel’s Vincent retorts that painting must be painted in one gesture. That’s a perfect summation of Schnabel’s Vincent: furiously obsessed and impatient about getting his vision on paper before the moment passes. As played by the marvelous Dafoe, he seems overwhelmed by everything – his life, his illness, and especially other people – except, that is, when he’s painting. In painting he finds god and his own reality. “I need to be in a feverish state,” Vincent exclaims. “The faster I paint, the better I feel.”
As one would expect, there are accounts of the infamous event in which the artist severed his own ear as well as a more modern account of his death which has sparked intense debate in recent years. The film’s version of the ear incident differs from other standard portrayals, likely myths, suggesting that he did it following an argument with Gauguin over a prostitute, and then, in a fit of jealousy, severed it and gave it to her, perhaps as a gift. Here the woman he gives it to is a barmaid, not a prostitute, and the intention is for her to give it to Gauguin whose plans to leave Arles and return to Paris to attend his burgeoning career have sent the emotionally dependent Vincent into one of his spells. This version is likely closer to the truth, but even so, is muddled by speculation and uncertainty.
At Eternity’s Gate espouses, if a bit hazily, a controversial theory about the painter’s 1890 death at the age of 37 from a bullet wound. This theory was popularized by the intricately researched book Van Gogh: The Life by Pulitzer Prize winning authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, which questions the previously cannonized belief that the death was a suicide, suggesting instead that it was a murder or an accidental killing by local teenagers from Auvers-sur-Oise, the town in which he was then living. Some traditional historians have angrily blasted this conclusion, but Naifeh and Smith’s evidence is intriguing and convincing. Still, although there is a hallucinatory scene portraying the shooting by teenagers, even Schnabel’s Vincent says he isn’t sure what happened. We, as viewers aren’t sure how real it is, and that fits in nicely with the film’s chaotic portrayal of the artist’s internal confusion. The movie casts doubts on the accuracy of traditional accounts but is reticent to commit.
“Painted reality is its own reality” Vincent explains in his conversation with Gauguin. And it’s clear this is not just Van Gogh talking about painting, but Schnabel discussing film. The director is essentially justifying his own speculative account by implying that it’s his reality – his own reality of Van Gogh’s life, art, and experience. Scholars can bitch and nitpick about the film’s historical veracity but their complaints are as irrelevant as Gauguin’s criticisms about Vincent’s art. Van Gogh’s paintings were his reality, his perception of the fields and sunflowers, the starry nights, and the people of Arles. Gauguin’s paintings were likewise his own reality. And the unique, compelling, and wonderous At Eternity’s Gate, is hauntingly, engrossingly Julian Schnabel’s.