Biographies of famous artists are nothing new, but “At Eternity’s Gate” feels a little special. Director Julian Schnabel’s film explores the life of renowned artist Vincent Van Gogh, and it pays lip service to his most notorious tragedies. But more importantly it paints a vivid, expressionistic portrait of his creative process. Any film could give you the gist of Van Gogh’s life story, but perhaps only this one can make you feel what it would be like to stand in a field with this brilliant mind, and watch him make magic out of scenery.
Willem Dafoe plays Van Gogh, and he’s uniquely suited to the task. He’s a captivating performer, as expressive with his body language as Van Gogh was with a brush. In lesser material he can sometimes come across as wild, even bizarre, but in a production like “At Eternity’s Gate” he’s free to make Van Gogh an emotionally needy loner, and an egomaniac with low self-esteem. Everything in Van Gogh’s life really was gigantic… except his impact while he was alive.
“At Eternity’s Gate” follows Van Gogh in his prolific period in Arles, France, through his troubled relationship with contemporary Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), and his in-and-out stays in various mental institutions. The film doesn’t so much have a story as it has a drive. Van Gogh must paint, the movie must show him painting, and every other aspect of his existence is a constant struggle. Sometimes the painting is too.
But mostly, the painting is glorious. Schnabel, an acclaimed painter himself, hardly seems interested in the nuts and bolts narrative of Van Gogh’s biography. Even the notorious moment when he cut off his own ear plays out entirely off camera, although Van Gogh offers a meek explanation afterwards.
Instead of old-fashioned incidents we get scene after scene of the artist quietly finding his inspiration. The removal of his shoes becomes an all-consuming epiphany, even in the sharpest cold. The examination of his natural surroundings yields little wonders and unimaginable works of art.
These moments of wonder are stained, however, by his omnipresent social anxiety. Van Gogh stumbles upon Gauguin painting a portrait and begins eagerly painting his own, to the obvious disgust of the now-unwilling model. He flies into frightening rages when children scorn his work. He practically falls to his knees and begs Gauguin to stay with him, and never move away, even though they have little in common and only a begrudging chemistry. He’s an expressive person whose expressions are pathetic, if you know him, and perhaps only captivating if you’re one-generation removed.
“At Eternity’s Gate” seems eager to elevate Vincent Van Gogh’s tragic status by building sympathy for his mental illness. Dafoe is drenched in neediness, and has an uncanny understanding for the myriad ways in which desperately wanting friendship can make it nearly impossible for sustain actual relationships. It’s a performance that betrays no interest in looking good, and boldly eschews conventional mystique. His loneliness is so thick he can do nothing else but paint with it.
Schnabel creates a natural, immersive motion picture that conveys the experience of being, living with, and painting like Vincent Van Gogh. It is a work of extreme confidence that is only undone by a single scene of almost comical self-awareness, in which Van Gogh correctly predicts the critical reappraisal of his work and compares himself to Jesus Christ.
Yes, technically they were both ahead of their time, but the comparison is uncharacteristically self-aggrandizing — but the fact that Dafoe has played both on screen is either an enormously distracting coincidence or a misguided attempt at being meta.
But it’s a lone moment of heavy-handedness. With this film, Schnabel seems to offer his interpretation not just of the artist but of the ultimate artist’s biography. “At Eternity’s Gate” presupposes that Van Gogh’s life was comprised of moments of inspiration, bookended by humdrum routine and hardship.
“I paint, as a matter of fact, to stop thinking,” the painter explains, as though freedom from anxiety is the noblest of pursuits. And when Schnabel’s film captures that ineffable sensation of zen — as sometimes it does, beautifully — it feels like the ultimate distillation of the artist’s experience.
All the rest of it, the emotional outbursts and perceived persecutions and overwhelming fear of inferiority, are perhaps only there to make that rare feeling of purity more valuable. It’s a lovely, albeit momentary sensation, made vivid and humane by Dafoe’s towering, vulnerable performance. And although the film briefly loses confidence, even that frailty makes it seem more earnest. The love for Van Gogh, his failures and all, peels off the screen like chips of dried paint.