Review: At Eternity’s Gate

It could be argued that we don’t need another biopic of Vincent Van Gogh, certainly the most cinematized painter of all time. And on the surface, Julian Schnabel’s treatment of the tormented Dutchman covers much of the same ground that previous movies have, at least temporally. He limits the film to the last year of Van Gogh’s life, but rather than dwell on his state of mind or what might or might not have happened during those last fateful, disputed months, he looks squarely at the work, which makes sense since Schnabel is a respected painter himself.

The thing that the director has to point out is that during his life Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) was unknown except for by a handful of other artists, and, of course, Schnabel references his brief but intense friendship with Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). This may be the most gratuitous sequence in the movie, since it seems Schnabel can’t get through his thesis without showing Gauguin’s influence on Van Gogh’s style, which, in essence, doesn’t really exist in Schnabel’s mind. In any event, once Van Gogh was released from a French asylum his work pace increased exponentially. Allegedly, he painted 150 pictures during that last year, selling only one of them. It’s common wisdom that Van Gogh didn’t care about money, much to his art dealer brother Theo’s (Rupert Friend) disappointment, but the style was so out there that it took decades for the rest of the world to catch up.

“God gave you this gift to keep you in misery,” Van Gogh tells himself as he newly discovers the light in Arles, where he achieved this monumental task, and another good point that Schnabel makes is that it was Van Gogh’s rejection of the city, or society in general, that afforded him the vision to see nature as being the real subject of his aesthetic. Schnabel conveys this realization by making the film every bit as impressionistic as Van Gogh’s work, but it only works to a certain extent. At times the style overwhelms the narrative, which loses too much traction in the end, and though we may not need another psychological analysis of Vincent’s life, his final days are portrayed so murkily that we get no sense of what kind of state he was in.

Nevertheless, Dafoe’s performance often breaks through the murk to give us something profound in both Van Gogh’s sensibility and his failure to connect to people. It helps alleviate some of Schnabel’s overbearing need to wallow in Vincent’s suffering for its own sake. Dafoe’s character is not so much a man who is crazy but rather one who is so overwhelmed by what his senses tell him that he is contantly distracted, and in that way he isn’t so much “miserable” as ill-equipped to deal with life as most people live it. He may have not been born for this world, but he was not a victim of it, either.

In English and French. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Kadokawa Cinema Yurakucho (03-6268-0015), Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).

At Eternity’s Gate home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Walk Home Productions LLC 2018

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