Ambitious filmmakers have previously taken the narrative biopic form in some unconventional directions. Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan-themed quasi-fictional anthology I’m Not There (2007) is probably the gold standard for this sort “anti-biopic” – at least in the 21st century – while David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991) mutated William S. Burroughs’ allegedly un-filmable novel into a de facto vision quest into the author’s unsettling headspace. French director Julian Schnabel’s new Vincent van Gogh feature, At Eternity’s Gate, isn’t as daring as those films, attempting as it does a relatively literal-minded representation of the Dutch painter’s subjective, cracked-prism perspective. Still, compared to a crowd-pleaser like A Beautiful Mind (2001), which duiously conveyed the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia in the argot of a slick espionage thriller, Schnabel’s film is commendably earnest, grounded, and empathetic in its depiction of both mental illness and artistic ardor. While At Eternity’s Gate adheres to the traditional view of van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) as an ahead-of-his-time visionary who suffered under the tyranny of a philistine public and his own disordered mind, the film also lends that narrative a fresh, expressive anguish.
Roughly chronological but pointedly slippery in its depiction of the time’s passage, Schnabel’s film focuses on the final two years of van Gogh’s life, beginning with his disillusioned departure from Paris in early 1888, whereupon he relocated to Arles in the south of France. It was there that the painter’s work matured, sharpened, and began to exhibit the characteristics for which he is best known: vivid colors, energetic brushwork, and a heightened fascination with the rural milieu and the natural world. Schnabel presents this period – as well as the artist’s later time at an asylum in Saint-Rémy and later still as a guest of Dr. Paul Gachet (Mathieu Amalric) in Auvers-sur-Oise – as an impressionistic flurry of events. Some of the sequences have a disconcerting intimacy, the camera perched seemingly inches from the noses of characters as they hunch together in urgent conversation. Other scenes, such as Vincent’s wanderings through the fields and forests of Arles, border on the abstract: oneiric flashes of yellow-leaved branches rustling; of ragged boots crunching through dry grass; of the painter’s wide-brimmed straw hat bobbing up and down in the sunlight.
Schnabel and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme employ jittery handheld camerawork, pushing it to such disorienting extremes that the story becomes drenched with a perpetual sense of scattered anxiety. (The motion sensitive should be advised: The shakiest Jason Bourne actioner has nothing on At Eternity’s Gate.) Often, the film literally assumes van Gogh’s first-person viewpoint, peering through a distorted lens at a world that seems alternately enchanted and hellish. At times, Schnabel and his sound team repeat and layer the film’s dialog, suggesting the cacophony of obsessive thought that babbles inside the painter’s skull, haunting him with the words of family, friends, and himself. The feature portrays the creation of specific works – L'Arlésienne, Tree Roots, Portrait of Dr. Gachet, and one of van Gogh’s boot paintings, among others – but it is not really a study of the artistic process, per se. (Stanley Tucci’s Final Portrait from earlier this year provides an instructive contrast, absorbed as that film is with the agony of a single painting’s physical production.) Indeed, Schnabel ultimately lends more attention to the colors, shapes, and textures that inspired the painter than to his acts of creation. At Eternity’s Gate is foremost about van Gogh’s extraordinary way of looking at the world – and the grueling misery that this vision inflicted on him.
Refreshingly, the screenplay by Schnabel, Jean-Claude Carrière, and Louise Kugelberg isn’t particularly interested in providing the viewer with the sort of linear, greatest-hits life story that is so often the default approach of more banal biopics. Not only is the film narrowly focused on the artist’s final two years on Earth, but its loose, fragmented style doesn’t allow for the conventional, this-then-that recitation of Wikipedia bullet points. Rather than attempt to sculpt a glib narrative around real-world events, the writers instead underline the story’s loose, episodic character, turning the absence of a character arc into a feature rather than a bug. In those scenes where At Eternity’s Gate focuses on specific incidents – as opposed to simply crouching in van Gogh’s cramped bedroom studio or wandering with him through wheat fields – it uses those events to deepen its portraiture of the artist, rather than to advance the plot (of which there is precious little). Ultimately, the film is much less concerned with drama than in conjuring the experience of being Vincent van Gogh, or at least Schnabel’s distinctly 21st-century conception of that experience.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a film isn’t all that interested in educating viewers about the dry facts of its subject’s life, At Eternity’s Gate often assumes that the audience is populated with art history geeks and van Gogh enthusiasts. This turns out to be both the film’s best and worst trait. While it means that Schnabel isn’t obliged to waste time explaining, for example, who Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) is or why he is important, the director can’t resist littering the frame with the arthouse equivalent of Easter eggs. Some of these are pleasantly poetic, such as a shot at the Saint-Rémy asylum that visually paraphrases van Gogh’s The Round of the Prisoners. Others are as jarring as a record scratch. When the artist briefly crosses paths with the bushy-bearded Arles postman and suggests that he sit for a painting, it feels like a gratuitous wink directed at the viewer erudite enough to recognize the subject of Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin. Too often, the film’s heavy-handed allusions feel like inside jokes that have been slipped in solely to flatter its presumably literate audience.
Those same viewers are presumably expected to disregard fact that the 63-year-old Dafoe is playing a man who died at the age of 37. Truth be told, it’s a testament both to Schnabel’s confidence in his supple, bittersweet approach and to Dafoe’s indelible strength as a performer that this historical discrepancy is never particularly distracting. Dafoe’s portrayal highlights van Gogh’s mania, distress, and exhaustion – traits underlined by the actor's sharp, creased features. It’s a role that has previously been filled by no less a rugged countenance than Kirk Douglas (Lust for Life ), but Dafoe makes this iteration of van Gogh wholly his own. With both rawness and elegance, he conveys the consuming paradox of van Gogh’s self-conception. On the one hand, artist is blessed with absolute certainty about his life’s purpose – to paint, and only to paint. On the other, the sights he yearns to share with the world torment him, filling him with both elation and the blackest terror. “Your vision of the world is quite frightening, isn’t it?” asks a doctor after the notorious episode in which van Gogh excises his left ear with a razor. All the artist’s profound psychological agony can be gleaned solely from Defoe’s shuddering, exhaled reply: “Yes!”
It’s a wrecked and aching portrayal, albeit one that is undermined by the self-satisfied historical hindsight that runs through many of the film’s pivotal conversations. Often, the dialog is less concerned with realism than with scoring points against the benighted 19th-century people who were too blinkered to recognize van Gogh’s brilliance. When an asylum priest (Mads Mikkelsen) disparages one of the artist’s paintings as “unpleasant and ugly”, the viewer is invited to cluck their tongue as the cleric’s provincialism. In the film, Van Gogh himself is prone to dropping Chicken Soup for the Artist aphorisms and speechifying superciliously about his work in a manner that feels conspicuously anachronistic. In these moments, it appears that Schnabel is indulging in a sort of ex post facto victory lap on the painter’s behalf, as though van Gogh’s contemporary, world-wide renown was insufficient posthumous reward for his brief life of misery. While this inclination undercuts the film’s otherwise intense pathos, At Eternity’s Gate remains an aesthetically bracing and ecstatically immersive work of artist portraiture, one centered on a truly beguiling performance.