“Life’s not so bad after all. There are not only poison but also antidotes.”
Last year’s Loving Vincent is now given an earlier chapter from which the breadth of van Gogh’s troubled and mesmerizing lust for life can be probed and examined for our own benefits. His art has become college dorm kitsch, but it’s his psychological furniture that remains in tact as a penetrating seam of drive and breakdown. As Manohla Dargis (NEW YORK TIMES) puts well, a film defined by “the art with which he at once communes with the world and transcends it.”
Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate, his first project in eight years, shows the method and the madness of a man on the outskirts of sanity seeking to memorialize his sight on canvas. A beautiful art film of loss and exploration with Willem Dafoe becoming lost in the character of van Gogh in one of his best roles to date. Kenneth Turan (LA TIMES) is right: “Dafoe’s work, the look in his searching, despairing eyes, feels beyond conventional acting, using intuition as well as technique to go deeply into the character, putting us in van Gogh’s presence.”
The film is slow, but the subject matter and runtime lends support for the weary watchers. Depicting a complicated relationship with Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), who represents the vision of worldly success and a momentary respite for van Gogh’s loneliness. It shows the moving love between Vincent and his brother (Theo), who remains in the isles of history as the single voice of compassion and support for the brilliant painter. A brother’s keeper whose own capacity for sanity lends hope and family values to the story.
While other projects have taken a more comprehensive look at the life of van Gogh, it is Schnabel, writes Peter Travers (ROLLING STONES), “who gets closest to his subject, which should be no surprise given his cinematic interest in artists and their process.” Content to focus on the workings in Arles and the drifting in-and-out of mental confusion, Schnabel works through the life of van Gogh as the perennial chaser of visions running from his own ephemeral grounding on reality. As Dargis explains:
To howl at this or any of the other liberties that Schnabel takes in “At Eternity’s Gate,” though, is to miss the point: The movie is a freely subjective portrait of van Gogh by another artist trying to see, paint and feel as he did.
After all, Schnabel readily admit that there are “scenes that are just plain invented.” Regardless, the collaboration was brilliant, in no short supply of competence was the cinematography, set and costume design. And of course the fact the Schnabel is a painter who knows a little bit about the process. I love what Dafoe had to say to Alissa Wilkinson (VOX) about his working with him:
Basically, with the help of Julian, I started painting shoes. I started painting cypress trees. We looked at the Van Goghs. He taught me a different way of looking, a different way of seeing.
When you’re not trained, you really leap to identify things in paintings — we’re so ingrained, no matter what our education is, toward thinking about representation. We’re literal about things, not really looking deeply.
But to express something may mean making a painting that doesn’t look like exactly like what it “looks like.” So Julian taught me to paint lights.
The work came through in the end as the film paints through a man seeking consolation and the secret to what Irvin Stone called “the pattern of nature . . . woven into the design of life.” Between this film and Loving Vincent, the profound depth of sadness is immeasurably great and must be felt as we learn to grow in our own compassion for one another. Not since Mr. Turner have we seen another work as introspective and deserving of an audience, and while the writing and the narrative is thin and selecting (skips unapologetically much of van Gogh’s life), there is an indelible gift in the expertise of Schnabel as a painter to paint this work of art for us about a man who had no idea the impact he would make after his death.