At Eternity's Gate (aka Van Gogh: At Eternity's Gate) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Trying to understand the mind and madness of Vincent van Gogh has to be a tough portrayal to post on screen. Even 2017’s heartfelt and reflective biopic Loving Vincent took a more distant approach, trying to understand the man more through the people who him than the man himself. It’s an engrossing experience that tries to allow just a little bit more inside the mind of a thoughtful and tortured genius.
Willem Dafoe plays Vincent van Gogh with a quietness most refreshing for his final days in France. We are literally let inside his head to see what he views when he questions a woman about wanting to paint her and how he discusses his artistic ventures. We spend the entire film around this character, sometimes getting whispers of his internal thoughts. He looks out silently on a large vista with a sun, mentioning how some only see a landscape while he spots eternity. He gazes into this allure of nature and ponders such thoughts about his own artistry and his humanity. Did he know he was going to die?
Perhaps it would be too pompous to assume that van Gogh’s madness for the strive of his art transformed him into an oracle of his own demise. But this aspect I find deeply fascinating because this performance seems to say more about ourselves than Vincent. It may seem strange that such a well-regarded artist could be taken so soon before the world knew of his greatness. If only he knew. Did he know? Did he ever think about the future? Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t but there’s a spiritual empathy we’d like to feel that someone so profound from generations ago thought the same things we thought.
Dafoe perfectly plays the character without bringing too much past the desperation seen more on his face than heard in his voice. There are certain scenes that seem like nothing as he tries to understand himself and the world. In one instance, he stumbles out onto a countryside hill, lies down on the grasss and sprinkles dirt on his face. This may seem strange until you consider the perspective of an artist. There had been tell during the early days of the Disney studio that animators, desiring the best perspective to draw from, laid down in the middle of a city street to get just the right angle of looking up at the sky.
Throughout the film is a fleeting sensation of trying to find more and never quite getting there. Many roadblocks occur for Vincent. He holds an art collective at an establishment but is berated for the gallery featuring work the owner does not approve of. He’ll later paint the roots of a tree and will be ambushed by children and their teacher that his focus is weird. Why would a painter paint roots? Why not the tree or landscapes or portraits? Vincent can’t quite explain his fascination. He’s too busy seeking the next perspective or unseen force to be bothered with placing exact meaning that the questioning throws him off. He feels he just needs to keep painting and he’ll find more.
Director Julian Schnabel focuses on a lot of the little details to find clues to Vincent’s mindset. We get to see plenty of paintings with lots of close-ups. There are several scenes where we merely watch a silent Vincent van Gogh walk around a room and maybe start up a painting of his boots. He ambles about town and sometimes his internal monologue crops up and gives some insight. We get to spend a lot of time with him more watching than listening. There’s something rather beautiful about such a portrayal.
At Eternity’s Gate may seem almost distant in pinning down Vincent despite seeing the entire film from his angle, including after his death. But there’s a relatable sensation to trying to understand the artist from this angle, feeling more of his anguish and mental mindset than just digesting a standard biopic of hitting all the beats. It’s not an all-encompassing biopic and benefits from a deeper focus on perhaps the most intriguing part of his life.