‘At Eternity’s Gate’ is a well-worn story worth the retelling

Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh in ‘At Eternity’s Gate,’ now at FilmScene. — video still

More than most artists, Vincent van Gogh comes to us in an almost inside-out fashion. We are intimately familiar with aspects and events of his life, especially his late life, which we choose to think explain the frenzied and vibrant nature of his art. His early struggles with family members, his reverential devotion to his brother Theo, his poverty, alcoholism, fervid religious faith, desperate flight from Paris and surmised mental illness are all more familiar to us than many of the subjects of his paintings.

Indeed, for an artist who did so many portraits, we think we know more about van Gogh’s inner emotional state than we do about most of his subjects. When we look at the Mona Lisa or Girl with a Pearl Earring, we want to know even more than we can about the sitters for those portraits. When we see van Gogh’s portraits of his postman or his landlady, we want to know more about van Gogh. It should be no surprise that Julian Schnabel — himself a celebrated painter with an obvious admiration for van Gogh’s art — would revel in this, and his newest film, At Eternity’s Gate, is both a eulogy and a fan letter to the aspects of van Gogh that inspire such feverish devotion from his admirers.

The film focuses on the last two years or so of van Gogh’s life (though Schnabel is intentionally imprecise with the chronology): from the time he flees the constrictions of the Paris art world to the liberating sunlight of Arles, through his treatment at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy, ending with his last months in Auvers-sur-Oise. The movie’s title is taken from one of van Gogh’s portraits from this period of an elderly and despairing patient at Saint-Rémy, a work currently at the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands.

‘At Eternity’s Gate’ — Vincent van Gogh, 1890

Appropriately, these years are the most productive of van Gogh’s career, and most of his iconic works come from this prolific and troubled period. These are also the years whose paintings cement the commonly accepted understanding of van Gogh as an unstable, mentally ill painter who could not imagine doing anything but painting and whose art was necessary to excise the fevered madness within him.

Schnabel probably knows better than to accept this cliched characterization without question, but his film does nothing to dispel it. It mostly does the opposite. van Gogh is easy to cinematize because his art practically begs for it and his anxiety and mental distress confirm what we all want to believe: that art is inspired by emotion and feeling and most good artists have some sort of close affinity with the ecstatic which allows them to translate human emotion to canvas in a relatively unmitigated way.

Madness and genius are linked in modern art largely because of van Gogh, and this is a linkage from which, for better or worse, Schnabel does not shy. As a result, his film is sometimes heavy-handed — every scene foreshadows a well-known painting; every peripheral character becomes a well-known portrait; every closeup of Vincent’s left ear is a tense portension of troubles to come. While this treatment may not be subtle, it does seem sincere.

Van Gogh’s inner life, emotionalism, ecstasy, demons and anxiety are demonstrated in his canvases, and appropriately, this process of translation becomes the focal point of Schnabel’s film. We know that van Gogh was impatient. He painted faster than virtually any other artist in the western canon — a painting not completed in a day was often abandoned for new, more pressing subject matter.

Jan Vermeer’s entire documented life created 34 paintings reliably attributed to him. (And one movie — which, to be fair, was really more about Scarlett Johansson.) Art historians feel comfortable attributing over 900 reliable van Goghs in oils alone. He would have tripled Vermeer’s lifetime output just in the several months covered in this film.

Schnabel emphasizes this a lot — speed, frenzy, spastic energy in the service of translating observed nature. For van Gogh, the trees needed to shiver and the sky needed to burn. At Eternity’s Gate is it not really an argument about how we should understand van Gogh other than to confirm all that we think we know and to tell us to be OK with it. Other than the inclusion of the recently discovered van Gogh sketches done within the ledger book that was loaned to him by his landlord in Auver-sur-Oise, Schnabel’s film really contributes nothing new to our understanding of the life or mysterious death of this troubled artist. (Schnabel does accept the accidental shooting version of van Gogh’s death popularized by last year’s impressive Loving Vincent.)

Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh in ‘At Eternity’s Gate,’ now playing at FilmScene. — video still

Nonetheless, an homage to one of the very founders of modern art — as well as the idea of the modern artist — by one of its 21st century practitioners feels right, and Schnabel’s admiration for his subject informs every moment of this film.

Not to be lost is the fantastic beauty of the French countryside that was certainly on the mind of van Gogh in his last months, and is on full display in Schnabel’s film. It is, however, a disrupted and unstable beauty, just as were the landscapes and changing light that van Gogh and the other revolutionary artists of late 19th century France fought so desperately to capture in their en plein air ventures.

Subscribe to LV Daily for community news, events, photos and more in your inbox every weekday afternoon.

Schnabel may obsess a bit too much on these characteristics — parts of the film are all but unintelligible with their shaky hand-held camera work, blurry backgrounds and intense close ups. We are constantly reminded, through the artifice of the lens, how van Gogh may have in fact seen the world: beautiful, intense and bright, but nonetheless nervous, unstable and filled with a reckless energy that likely informed his work (though in a way which may be weakly approximated on film).

Oscar Isaac as Paul Gauguin in ‘At Eternity’s Gate,’ now playing at FilmScene. — video still

The acting here is also top notch. Fans of Willem Dafoe will find no more appropriate outlet, maybe in his entire career, for his twitchy, sinewy energy and presence, despite dialogue which is sometimes too earnest. (He even speaks a little Dutch in the early parts of the film.) Notable too is the support — if given more camera time, Oscar Isaac’s Gauguin would certainly have stolen the film, as would Rupert Friend in his portrayal of Theo van Gogh.

After At Eternity’s Gate, many questions about Vincent van Gogh remain unanswered. Was he mentally ill or just nervous and misunderstood by the standards of the 1880s? Did he really kill himself or was he accidentally shot? Had he lived a few more years, would the realization of his fame have helped his psychic state? At Eternity’s Gate answers none of these. It does, however, tell a well-worn story about an artist famous not only for his painting, but perhaps even more, for his faith in painting. It does so with the intensity and incandescence of a director with a clear passion for van Gogh’s art and, more importantly, for van Gogh’s spirit — a compelling story, even if we’ve heard it before.

At Eternity’s Gate is currently playing at FilmScene.