I believe any film fan’s relationship with the biopic feature can’t transcend beyond love-hate. Due to the stature of the subject material tends to only fall between one of two results; beautifully moving, or painfully truncated for the filmic form. It feels like we’ve endured more of the latter recently, but thankfully that isn’t the case with ‘At Eternity’s Gate’. Rendered more as a film seen through the eyes of its tormented protagonist, it is a fittingly artistic piece of work that exquisitely portrays its subject with nuance and depth. Vincent van Gogh was a complex figure, a man who has remained an unequivocal facet to our cultural zeitgeist, but also a man who was riddled with demons. And with the film taking the approach into a character study, it rightfully provides a profound dissection of the larger-than-life artist.
The film centres on the final years of Vincent van Gogh (Willem Dafoe, ‘The Florida Project’), time he predominantly occupied in Arles, France as he continued to try and assert himself as a respected painter. Vincent is living in a self-imposed exile, his strives for success having brought him pain. His brother, a prominent art dealer, is struggling to sell his works, while van Gogh has become over-reliant on his friendship with fellow artist Paul Gaugin (Oscar Isaac, ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’) for camaraderie and acceptance. To escape his pain, Van Gogh hopes to focus on his belonging with eternity. But as his artistic endeavours bring him affliction, it coalesces with his staggering battles with mental illness that proved an equal foil.
'AT ETERNITY'S GATE' TRAILER
‘At Eternity’s Gate’ is intended to place the audience in the mindset of van Gogh himself - a complicated, tragic figure who did not see the world through naturalistic means. With this, the style of filmmaking on display is never intended to be presented in a certitude of factual reality, especially since van Gogh’s final days are, to this day, still shrouded in mystery. Schnabel’s film is impressionistic and soulful, as were van Gogh’s artworks. The film is stated to draw its biography from letters and commonly agreed events that are based in best showcasing the layered dimensions of van Gogh, as an individual. And it proves to be the film’s greatest strength.
The film is a mesmerisingly compelling piece of work, as it perfectly understands the best cinematic route to portray its artful subject matter. Primarily, because the film doesn’t take the easy greatest hits approach to its storytelling; it genuinely tries to explore visually van Gogh’s complex and tragic mind with great empathy. With its meditative examination, the film makes the most of its composition, constructing delightful use of inventive cinematography to show every inch of ecstasy, torment and mysticism that imbued van Gogh’s legend. This sensorial approach is able to illustrate, moreover, that at the centre of this larger-than-life artist was his toils and humanity. Additionally, it is a showcase of what this medium can distinctively provide on an emotional level, with the film’s spiritual transcendence effortlessly bestowed throughout.
Willem Dafoe, whose Academy Award nomination came as a surprise, reminds us only moments into the film why said performance has gained the acclaim. He is utterly exquisite in the role, offering great humanity with elegiac emotion at this man lost within his own fragmented psyche.
Furthermore, so much of the film’s hopeful ideals are accentuated in Willem Dafoe’s layered portrayal of the artist. Dafoe, whose Academy Award nomination came as a surprise, reminds us only moments into the film why said performance has gained the acclaim. He is utterly exquisite in the role, offering great humanity with elegiac emotion at this man lost within his own fragmented psyche. ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ thrives in its simple moments, with roving POV camerawork and quiet conversations about objectives like mortality, religion and eternity at the forefront. Dafoe is able to orchestrate van Gogh’s inherent madness towards understanding the themes with great empathy and magnetism. It is a remarkable performance, alongside Isaac who provides a tender portrayal of fellow artist Paul Gaugin, and Mads Mikkelsen as a priest tending to patients in an asylum.
However, the dreamlike atmosphere to the film does illuminate its few drawbacks. At times, the film can be a little too meditative for its own good. Visual symbolism becomes a bit too inherent, while sometimes the score becomes very repetitious. What pulls ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ from greatness is that it can’t entirely shake the aura of unevenness that channels van Gogh’s mental frailty throughout. You can tell that director and co-writer Julian Schnabel is constantly trying to evoke profundity, and he achieves it more than he misses, but it means the films isn’t always successful. Is it a major hindrance? No; what the film does right makes its drawbacks never remotely a spoiler, but it cannot be denied that the film does slip into its artistic indulgences on occasion.
Yet, all and all, ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ is a fittingly captivating portrayal of an artist ahead of his time. The film is able to take some creative license, but does so in a manner that betters the humanistic truths and foils of its protagonist to startling effect. The performances are terrific, and the filmmakers have taken advantage of its medium to present an achingly beautiful story. Like van Gogh’s most celebrated works, ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ is a piece of art, and unlike those that viewed van Gogh’s artworks throughout his lifetime, this should not be neglected upon release.