Appeals to the senses in a disorienting way, pulling us into the endless swirls of van Gogh’s starry sky
Words by Savina Petkova / @SavinaPetkova
BASED ON KATHLEEN POWERS ERICKSON’S BIOGRAPHY of the same name, At Eternity’s Gate is a deeply personal and astounding metatextual film carefully narrated by Willem Dafoe’s sonorous voice. Both the literary biography and the film script are reconstructed on the basis of Vincent van Gogh’s personal correspondence; sketching from the raw words, the film reaches out to revive Vincent’s unique perspective on nature and the world, playing with the lustrous colours of the French South. The tilting, tracking, shaking camera never pauses to take a breath during almost two hours of screen time, it’s ecstatic presence reconstructing the source of van Gogh’s unique painting style. And we should applaud the success of it all: At Eternity’s Gate is a sincere biopic concerning tortured genius, ahead of his time, portrayed by Defoe with ever-present tenderness. More than a glamorising look upon an outcast talent, painter-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel’s (Lou Reed's Berlin, Miral) latest feature is a conscientious advocate for the need to normalise the portrayal of mental health issues.
At Eternity’s Gate takes its place in a long tradition of van Gogh biopics, amongst them Lust For Life (1956), Vincent & Theo (1990), Van Gogh (1991), as well as the experimental brush-stroked, Loving Vincent (2017). The painter’s mythologised life and death offers fecund ground for numerous explorations and tributes. But At Eternity’s Gate is sensuously closer to The Danish Girl (2015) and Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998), both of which address the turbulent side of genius, opposing society’s restrictions. But the newest Gogh film does not rely solely on sympathy. This is spectacular filmmaking, concerned with guiding us into the mind and vision of the Dutch painter, in the last years of his life, spent between the Provencal town of Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise, where he allegedly committed suicide.
The film’s exceptional cinematography frantically keeps up with Vincent’s pace, to form an astounding motif: always rushing to catch the perfect sunlight, his feet are shot close in motion, the bright green and yellow grass beneath fuse, forming the signature ‘Van Gogh’ brush marks. We see a nascent Starry Night and Cypresses, effervescent and glimmering - this repetitive trope visually explains his unique style. He engulfs landscapes like air, breathing out harsh brush strokes, and in his paintings, Nature is free. No wonder the surrealists liked to think of Vincent van Gogh as one of their predecessors.
Suppressing Vincent's frenzied creativity, a very revolutionary Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), advises him to “ be in control”. “I don’t want to calm down. When I paint, I don’t think”, is Vincent’s response. The bitter brotherhood / romance between Gauguin and Van Gogh culminated in the slicing of an ear, which stigmatised the Dutch as a madman. Whereas not shown in the film, the aftermath of the incident is referred to in a long sequence of a centred Willem Dafoe in a cinematic reproduction of the famous Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889). Weaving in subtly live reproductions of paintings, At Eternity’s Gate intensifies the role of imagination to the point where, for the artist, fantasy and memory converge. This limbo is portrayed as both his agony and ecstasy - episodes of amnesiac frenzy, which exile Vincent out of Arles into the asylum at Saint-R’émy-de-Provence. The film masterfully juxtaposes his religious delirium which is described as “a new vision”, seen by no one but him alone, with the ostracisation that his anti-social behaviour brings. A brilliant sequence is narrated with the first critical review of Van Gogh’s works by Albert Aurier (voice of Louis Garrel), who speaks of “light turning into conflagration; life, into burning fever”, accompanied by the score’s crescendo. In this praise, the image rapidly cuts to a dead-silent, still frame of Vincent in a straitjacket, emasculated, and numb. The tragic constraint of a mesmeric life-force, weakened by mental instability, afflicts us with a traumatic jolt.
Throughout, the film operates on a push-pull dynamic: the painter is "at eternity’s gate", but the gate is closed. His state of mind is feverish and monomaniac, meeting the impossibility to communicate a way of seeing that is not merely revolutionary in an artistic way, but spiritually transcendent. Vincent’s character is built up as a kind but secluded man, his grave melancholy delivered by Defoe’s deep intonation, which reaches down to the gutter of human sorrow. In a grieving conversation with the asylum priest (Mads Mikkelson), Vincent ingeniously compares himself with Jesus - misunderstood and mistreated, he confesses he is a painter for the future. In other cases, it might strike as a cliche description which bites in a common trope of the tortured artist figure; here it is heart-wrenching. When the priest calls Vincent’s paintings "unpleasant" and "ugly", we realise we have already morphed into the painter’s eyes, we share his perspective and mind-images, we are also far lost. We weep for Van Gogh, and we weep for ourselves.
In the impossibility of communicating depression and mental illness, the only salvation - empathy - cannot be enhanced by words, since words can only scratch upon the meaning of feelings. Images, on the other hand - moving images - are what directly affects us, and call out for an emotional response. At Eternity’s Gate appeals to the senses in a seductive, disorienting way, pulling us into the endless swirls of Van Gogh’s starry sky. It is, by far, the only film of its pantheon which trades the painter’s vision for our own, complete visual identification that goes beyond traditional POV shots. With his vision, his pain also becomes our pain.
At Eternity's Gate
Director: Julian Schnabel
Country: USA / UK / France
Duration: 110 minutes
Rating: 12A for "brief moderate threat"
Release: March 29, 2019
Savina Petkova is the Managing Editor of Electric Ghost Magazine. She also contributes to MUBI Notebook, Photogénie and Girls on Tops.