At Eternity's Gate Review
Ruben Ostlund’s satirisation of the modern art world, The Square, was effective in how it mined dark, uncomfortable laughs with its highly specific parodies of the pretentious individuals behind the exhibits. But one outsized caricature hit closer to home than most - the American artist portrayed in a cameo by Dominic West, who was not so subtly based on painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, whom West would later describe as a “dismissive” personality when the pair met. Schnabel’s elevated view of himself in the art world makes sense when you consider his filmography, largely comprised of biopics of famous artists, well known fashion industry players, and artists of various mediums. He’s absolutely enamoured with other male geniuses, and uses his own films as an excuse to transcend into their mindset.
At Eternity’s Gate sees him tackle the most famous subject in his oeuvre to date, artist Vincent Van Gogh, avoiding the narrative beats you’d expect from the late period of the artist’s life in order to make something more impressionistic, viewing the wonders and tragedies of the world through Van Gogh’s eyes, showing how he was influenced by his surroundings. This is initially captivating in how it refuses to be constrained by biopic convention, but it eventually grows tiresome, and isn’t aided by conventional biopic moments that portray the artist as needy and emotionally insecure, as opposed to suffering from severe mental health issues. It’s a bizarre way to communicate his genius, and even Schnabel seems unsure as to whether he wants the audience to be enamoured with Van Gogh, or find him as insufferable as the other citizens of his adopted hometown of Arles. It didn’t take long for me to settle on the latter.
63 year old Willem Dafoe stars as 37 year old Van Gogh, newly moved to the southern French city of Arles from his home in The Netherlands. He’s a frustrated genius, whose paintings are looked upon with confusion by the few who got to see them in his lifetime - at one point, he even violently lashes out at a teacher and a group of schoolchildren for belittling him whilst he paints. But inspiration eventually comes in the form of Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), a Parisian post impressionist artist who Vincent is obsessed with. Upon announcing he’s returning to the capital, Vincent slices his ear off, and the rest is history.
As stated above, the film’s most enrapturing moments are surplus to the expected biopic beats. Mere minutes into the film, Schnabel utilises fish eye lenses and first person camerawork to explore the French countryside from an unusual perspective, dedicating extended scenes to seeing the world through Vincent’s eyes. The cinematography is eclectic, moving from these aforementioned impressionistic moments to tight, handheld closeups of Vincent during his emotional crises, and painterly, conventional shots capturing the gorgeous landscapes. The film itself is the rigid, self important you’d likely assume it was from the outside, but cinematographer Benoît Delhomme makes it more stylistically playful, holding your attention even as nothing that unfolds is dramatically engaging.
The other reason to watch it is, of course, Dafoe’s Oscar nominated performance. Yes, it’s baffling he made it to the final five and Ethan Hawke’s First Reformed turn got shut out completely, but Dafoe is an expert on making you intrigued by unusual, broken men - his performance feeling all the more powerful considering the dire screenplay he has to work with. The way the screenplay writes Van Gogh is confused as to whether it wants you to appreciate his approach to work or not, but Dafoe is naturally uninterested in this. He’s a natural at portraying characters on the brink of sanity, and the film’s confused characterisation of the artist would only be more pronounced were any other actor in this role.