That dude could paint! There are biopics of artists that don’t ask more of an audience than that simple reaction. Not so with Julian Schnabel’s extraordinary At Eternity’s Gate, which features a monumental, career-best performance from Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh. It’s not that Schnabel doesn’t glory in the visions the Dutch painter put on canvas. But Schnabel, renowned as a painter in the way Van Gogh never was in life, wants to get inside the head of this tormented artist and make us see what he sees, as though we’re living his life and not just watching it. As the director puts it: “This movie is an accumulation of scenes based on Van Gogh’s letters, common agreement about events in his life that parade as facts, hearsay and scenes that are just plain invented. This is not a forensic biography about the painter. It is about what it is to be an artist.” This unorthodox approach can be off-putting at times, but mostly it blows the dust off standard biopic-making and gives the film a propulsive, this-just-in immediacy.
At Eternity’s Gate is a ravishment of the senses, with cinematographer Benoît Delhomme — a master of the handheld camera — capturing the gorgeous play of sunlight on flowers, wheat fields and anything that else that seized Van Gogh’s attention. It’s also a study of the agony Van Gogh endured in his final years (he committed suicide in 1890 at 37), mad with talent and his own violent delirium to the point of cutting off his left ear (a moment unseen here).
Though the film begins in Paris, where critics ignore his work and even his supportive brother Theo (Rupert Friend) can’t alleviate his despair, Van Gogh soon heads south to Provence, encouraged by fellow artist Paul Gauguin (a stellar Oscar Isaac), who tells him that’s where the light is at its most glorious. It’s in the small town of Arles where Van Gogh — in a burst of creative energy — completed 75 paintings in 80 days. His impoverished circumstances in a one-room hovel don’t bother him. In nature, he’s ecstatic. “Every time I look, I see something I’ve never seen before,” he says. And Schnabel makes sure that we feel that ecstasy as well. It’s Van Gogh’s antisocial behavior that lands him in a nearby asylum, where crushing loneliness takes its toll. He bristles at criticism of his work, especially when Gauguin accuses him of overpainting, making the globs of oil on his canvas look like sculpture. “Maybe God made me a painter for people who aren’t here yet,” Van Gogh notes prophetically. It’s perhaps too much of an on-point line in an otherwise subtly idiosyncratic screenplay that Schnabel wrote with Jean-Claude Carrière and Louise Kugelberg. In a touching reversal on the Van Gogh mythos, Schnabel shows an artist who seems more rational as the world dismisses him as crazy.
There have been dozens of other films about Van Gogh, most notably Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life with Kirk Douglas, Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo with Tim Roth and Dorota Kobiela’s animated Loving Vincent with Robert Gulaczyk voicing the artist. But it’s Schnabel who gets closest to his subject, which should be no surprise given his cinematic interest in artists and their process, from the Haitian neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat in Basquiat to the Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls and the French editor and writer Jean-Dominique Bauby in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Marvelous films all. But in At Eternity’s Gate, Schnabel goes deeper than ever before into the art of making art and the human toll it exacts. Dafoe, looking like a Van Gogh self-portrait come to life, becomes the ideal canvas for Schnabel to paint his feelings on film. You can argue about At Eternity’s Gate, debate its merits as drama and its fullness as biography, but Schnabel and Dafoe make you feel it in your bones. And that, no question, is an artistic triumph.