There’s a bitter irony in the fact that Vincent van Gogh remained almost entirely unrecognised as an artist during his lifetime, yet has since gone on to become possibly the most frequent painter ever to appear on our screens.
At Eternity's Gate is the second film about the artist to hit cinemas in the last year, following hot on the heels of last year's animated piece Loving Vincent and joining a canon of others including 1956's Kirk Douglas-starring Lust for Life, 1948's Oscar-winner Van Gogh and the equally imaginatively titled, 1991's Cesar-winner Van Gogh.
It’s a crowded field, so can Julian Schnabel’s film stand out? The movie tells the story of the latter years of van Gogh’s (Willem Dafoe) life, following his self-imposed exile in Southern France in an attempt to find inspiration away from the grey oppression of Paris, and leading up to the artist’s suicide/murder – Schnabel opts for the latter – in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise in 1890.
The movie is visually impressive. As a former artist himself, Schnabel brings a distinct aesthetic to his film, with much of the mise-en-scene harking back directly to van Gogh’s own paintings. The contrast between the often washed-out, grey colour palette of the real world and the vibrancy of van Gogh’s paintings offers an insight into the bipolar goings on in the painter’s mind.
Indeed, this is a film of contrasts. While van Gogh’s friend and mentor Paul Gaugin (Oscar Isaacs) believes painting should be a calm, thoughtful process, van Gogh prefers a frenzied, rushed approach. While Gaugin relishes the buzz of the city, van Gogh basks in the peace of the countryside, though his fellow country-dwellers may not concur since the artist is not always the most peaceful soul himself. While Paris’ art scene gushes praise on the work of the “old school” impressionists, van Gogh’s work is detested and derided. At every juncture, a new polar opposite seems to lay bare the turmoil in the tormented painter's head.
Which leads us to Dafoe. If you’re going to make a film about an iconic, emotional wreck of a painter (who has already been portrayed on screen numerous times), you’re going to need quite some performance to make a mark. The veteran actor delivers, and more – he certainly warrants his Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
This isn’t what you could call a dialogue-heavy film, but even though vast swathes of screen time are devoted to Dafoe alone on screen with nothing but a picture-frame background and an insistent piano track for company, he successfully conveys the torture of a haunted man-child with a mild messiah complex with ease.
When conversation does occur, it is almost always vital, such as the brief exchanges that manage to show the deep bond between van Gogh and his brother Theo (Rupert Friend), or a heart-wrenching dialogue during his incarceration in an asylum where he debates art, God, and eternity with a resident priest (Mads Mikkelsen).
The film does have its faults though. It’s a slow film, and one that may struggle to keep the attention of multiplex audiences used to a diet of Hollywood fare. Schnabel’s strange decision to shoot the film partly in French and partly in English should also be questioned. I have no issue on the foreign language front, but there seems no continuity to the decision, meaning French actors will suddenly switch into heavily accented English, while at points Dafoe and Isaacs will suddenly start speaking to each other in equally stilted French, for no apparent reason.
Nonetheless, Schnabel has crafted a visually impressive, emotionally fulfilling portrait of a legend of the art world. As an added bonus, when it comes to carrying off a convincing visual impersonation of van Gogh, Dafoe could literally have walked out of the frame of one of his self-portraits – he puts Kirk Douglas’ much-lauded “striking resemblance” from the 1956 film in the shade.