Thursday, December 6, 2018

Movie Review: At Eternity's Gate

At Eternity's Gate **** / *****
Directed by: Julian Schnabel.
Written by: Jean-Claude Carrière and Louise Kugelberg and Julian Schnabel.
Starring: Willem Dafoe (Vincent Van Gogh), Rupert Friend (Theo Van Gogh), Oscar Isaac (Paul Gauguin), Mads Mikkelsen (The Priest), Mathieu Amalric (Dr. Paul Gachet), Emmanuelle Seigner (Madame Ginoux), Niels Arestrup (Madman), Anne Consigny (Teacher), Amira Casar (Johanna Van Gogh), Vincent Perez (The Director), Lolita Chammah (Girl on the Road), Stella Schnabel (Gaby), Vladimir Consigny (Doctor Felix Ray).
Julian Schnabel has been at his best when making films about artists, in part because as an artist himself, he understands them, and in part because he seems more interested in that art, and the process that made it, than it delivering a more traditional biopic structure – which mainly seems to want to be a greatest hits collection of a subject’s life. In At Eternity’s Gate, he turns his camera on Vincent Van Gogh, in the final months of his life, and while there are probably few painters least in need of another film about them than Van Gogh (we already have Vincente Minelli’s more traditional Lust for Life (1956), Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo (1990), which focused on both Van Gogh brothers and Loving Vincent (2017), an animated film that sought to recreate the look of Van Gogh’s paintings on screen, and covered much of the same ground as this film (but shrouded in an unnecessary mystery) – the film still works, as it attempts to do something different – to look at the world askew like Van Gogh, as he struggles with fitting in, and seeing the world in his way. It also helps that Willem Dafoe delivers a remarkable performance as Van Gogh – even if Van Gogh died in his 30s, and Dafoe is now 60, he was still perfectly cast.
As he is want to do, Schanbel’s camera in the film is constantly moving, constantly restless, and constantly in close-up on his actors faces as they go about their lives. For Van Gogh, that meant painting and little else – he didn’t care for anything else, he didn’t want to do anything else, and when he did anything else, that’s when the trouble happened. This film is perhaps at its best when it is at its quietest – when it watches Van Gogh sitting in front of his easel, out in the fields he was painting – and watching as he transforms what is in front of him into the art on his canvas. As he says in the film, he wonders why he doesn’t see things in the same way as other people do – but it’s that not seeing things in the ways others do that made him the artist he was.
The film does have more traditional story elements as well. Oscar Isaac co-stars as fellow artist Paul Gauguin (a role Anthony Quinn won an Oscar for in Lust for Life) – who was Van Gogh’s friends, and comes to stay for a time in the same small town as Van Gogh. Their approaches to art and painting are different – and they argue, passionately, about it – but it was these arguments that kept Van Gogh going. When Gauguin leaves, it is for him that Van Gogh cuts off his ear as an offering.
The film gets close with Van Gogh as he tries to explain himself. One of the best scenes has him meetings with a Priest (Mads Mikkelsen), who has to decide if he should let Van Gogh out of the mental hospital he is being confined in. Whether or not Van Gogh would have the insight and self-awareness he shows in this scene is debatable – but it feels right when he argues it.
For Schanbel’s film to work, he needed a performer like Dafoe – one of those actors who seems to always be daring, always be pushing himself forward. This role couldn’t be more different than the one he should have won an Oscar for last year (The Florida Project), except for how completely Dafoe understands these characters. This is a committed performance, one unconcerned with vanity, and more concerned with inhabiting Van Gogh’s troubled soul. It’s a great performance – and it elevates the whole film.
As a filmmaker, I still think that Schnabel would be better served to calm down sometimes – to let things play out a little more without imposing his style on every second, every frame. But when the films work, it is overwhelming and effective – a brilliant portrayal of a brilliant artist.

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