Film Review: At Eternity's Gate

Liza Dezfouli

At Eternity’s Gate is the latest film about Vincent van Gogh, arguably the western world’s most beloved artist.
Film Review: At Eternity's Gate

Willem Dafoe stars in At Eternity’s Gate.

At Eternity’s Gate is the latest film about Vincent van Gogh, arguably the western world’s most beloved artist. The popular animation Loving Vincent last year  was a love letter to van Gogh in oil paintings in his own style. Now Academy Award-nominated writer/director Julian Schnabel (Basquiat, Before Night Falls, The Diving Bell & The Butterfly), himself a renowned painter, and co-writers Jean-Claude Carrière and Louise Kugelberg, have have made a film bringing audiences inside the world of Vincent, the artist and the man.

US actor Willem Dafoe astonishes in his portrayal of the painter; there’s no less dramatic way to say it. It’s earnt him an Academy Award Nomination for Best Actor and he’s already won Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival 2018.

At Eternity’s Gate is set in the final 18 months or so of Vincent's life, mostly after he moved to Auvers-sur-Oise in May 1890. Vincent was unpopular as a person and practically nobody at the time appreciated his genius. He and his work were ridiculed. Schnabel's version of Vincent isn’t a hagiography: the artist was erratic and eccentric at best and apparently could be problematic in dealing with women.

The intense and arrogant French painter Paul Gauguin, a significant force in the painter's life, is played by Oscar Isaac. Gauguin’s insensitivity towards Vincent, especially when Gauguin leaves town, is gut-wrenching. Vincent’s relationship with his ever-supportive brother Theo (Rupert Friend) is an especially strong and moving aspect of the story. Emmanuelle Seigner plays ambivalent landlady Madame Ginoux, and Mads Mikkelsen is memorable in a small role as The Priest. 

Vincent’s ecstatic engagement with nature connected him with the numinous, something he sought to portray in his paintings for others to share. We experience this here via Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography. Camerawork is varied, jerky, at times lingering, at others manic and scenes lengthen and shorten in pace. Filming makes much use of SnorriCam (a camera attached to the actor’s body), bringing us as close to Vincent’s viewpoint as possible. We see the artist in a trance-like state during his daily excursions, we linger on him painting en plein air. We’re with him in deep conversation with Gauguin, and, after being released from a year at the asylum in St Remy, with Dr Gachet (Mattieu Almaric) in Auvers. The final scene shows us the artist in his coffin surrounded by his paintings, a fitting and prescient image. 

While avoiding sensationalising the dramatic elements of The Vincent Narrative – the thinned-skin anguish, the self-amputation and his death – the film is a full, intimate, tender homage to the seminal creator and his chaotic, emotional, artistically driven life. Many of us carry around inside our own version of Vincent – if you’re affected by the artist’s story and his work, you’ll appreciate this film.

Rating: 5 stars ★★★★★

At Eternity's Gate
Director: Julian Schnabel
Writers: Jean-Claude Carrière, Julian Schnabel
Distributed CBS Films
Stars: Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend

PG-13
1h 51min
Release date: 14 February 2019

 

About the author

Liza Dezfouli reviews film, live performance, books and occasionally music. She blogs about film and other things in a blog called Copy and Cake and writes another, somewhat less-measured blog about feminism and heteronormativity called WhenMrWrongfeelsSoRight. She can occasionally be seen in shows or in short films. For more: www.lizadezfouli.com.