At Eternity’s Gate (2016)

At Eternitys gate

One-line review: Van Gogh’s “Beauty and the beast.”

No movie with Willem Dafoe can be bad, but this Van Gogh biography is transfixing. The film is painter and director Julian Schnabel’s labor of love, where every frame pays homage to Van Gogh’s genius and humanity. Most people are familiar with the significant, mostly tragic events in Van Gogh’s life, so rather than revisiting these events, Schnabel gives us a close-up look at Van Gogh’s emotions during these events. For example, we see a bandaged Van Gogh explaining why he cut off his ear, or an ill Van Gogh snuggling into the arms of the love of his life: his brother Theo.    

Since the film is an artist and fan’s perspective about Van Gogh, painting takes center stage. Schnabel taught Dafoe to paint before shooting. Trust Dafoe to get good enough to paint the “Shoes’ himself on camera. Schnabel suggested that cinematographer Benoit Delhomme wander around in the wheatfields of Scotland wearing Van Gogh’s clothes, shoes, and hat so that he could get into Van Gogh’s mind. The result is as vibrant as a Van Gogh original. The audience is always by Van Gogh’s side, almost like his easel, as he jaunts through the rugged French countryside. Some visuals are intentionally blurry to reflect Van Gogh’s constant highs and lows. And the music is as enchanting as the landscapes.  

Casting Dafoe is more than half the job done. As NYT’s Manohla Dargis observes, “Dafoe has one of the most interesting faces that can be both terrifying and beatific in turns.” At its core, Dafoe’s performance is sincere, even in madness, like Van Gogh. Trust the naysayers to focus on trivial details like the almost thirty-year difference between the real Van Gogh and Dafoe. As Dafoe points out, given the life expectancy those days, Van Gogh was old, while a fit and agile Dafoe is still in his prime in his sixties. 

The film shows Van Gogh’s most vulnerable moments battling his critics and loneliness with the only thing he knows to do: paint. One can only imagine his internal struggle to come to terms with his fate as a painter whose audience, in his own words, “was yet to be born.” Was it a way to keep going, or did he believe that? Either way, Van Gogh or nobody for that matter could have predicted how prophetic his words would become. Yet, self-doubt plagues even geniuses; Van Gogh asks Theo (a brilliant Rupert Friend) if he is a good painter.     

Despite all his famed hardships, both financial and emotional, the core group of people in Van Gogh’s life genuinely loved him. Be it Theo, his innkeeper, the maid, the priest, the cop who questions him after the ear incident, the priest (the bankable Mads Mikkelson), or Dr. Paul Gachet (Mathieu Amalric steals the show in his brief scene). The film makes this profound point by just being truthful to Van Gogh’s story. When Van Gogh tells Gaugin (played with a pitch-perfect sharpness by Oscar Isaac) that he hates most people but loves his brother Theo, Gaugin responds, “and he loves you back, that’s important.” Despite Van Gogh’s poverty, he was never short of paint, an expensive commodity. Although Van Gogh’s bond with his younger brother Theo (Van Gogh lying in Theo’s arms in his sickbed is the vicarious hug we want to give Van Gogh) is what sustained him; the real hero of the story is Theo’s wife, Johanna. She appears only in one scene in the film, but her relentless efforts after Van Gogh’s death were single-handedly responsible for giving Van Gogh his rightful place in the art world.

And how could Van Gogh be miserable when he could spend all day doing just what he loved? The shot of Dafoe grinning in sheer abandonment, feeling the swaying grass graze his face in the glorious sunshine, is proof that Van Gogh doesn’t need our pity, only understanding and respect. At Eternity’s Gate is a profound experience that makes you a believer in the power of art while recognizing the elusiveness of recognition. History repeats itself in the constant tussle between genius and the mediocre, who sadly hold the purse strings. Yet Van Gogh emerges triumphant, even during his lifetime, by deciding to bear the cross for his art. 

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