Review: At Eternity’s Gate (2018)

At Eternity’s Gate

Rating

Director

Julian Schanbel

Screenplay

Jean-Claude Carriere, Julian Schnabel, Louise Kugelberg

Length

1h 51m

Starring

Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Niels Arestrup

MPAA Rating

PG-13 for some thematic content

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Review

Is there art in madness? Is there madness in art? At Eternity’s Gate explores the last two years of post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh’s life asking the audience to suffer with its protagonist and question the reality of artistic expression.

One of the most commonly explored painters in history, Van Gogh has been the subject of numerous fiction works on television and in film. While the exploration of his life and work is commonplace, At Eternity’s Gate may be the most esoteric work based on his storied career.

Starring Willem Dafoe in a defining, if minimal, turn as Vincent in the latter years of his life, the film is an attempt to explore Van Gogh from a painterly perspective, something director Julian Schnabel has done with varying degrees of success previously. It was filmed in the real life locations where he spent the last years of his life, giving the film an added level of authenticity.

Like his subject, Schanbel has approached cinema from an artist’s viewpoint, one that is not often seen on the big screen. With his brilliant The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Schnabel refined what cinema could do and exemplified how art is an intrinsic part of the cinematic experience. He understands how to capture a scene with beauty and authenticity, but At Eternity’s Gate doesn’t feel honest enough or up to his highest potential.

While the concepts of experiencing art in order to genuinely capture the world around the artist is a key element to his film, Shcanbel cannot help but lecture the audience with concepts that are lofty, but professorial. Schanbel is teaching the audience what he wants them to learn rather than giving them the information they need to create an informed opinion. That kind of heavy-handed thematic approach does little to entice or engage the viewer.

The film’s photography is oftentimes beautiful, the alternating silence and droning piano music cause the film to feel like it’s moving forward in fits and starts. The narrative, while largely linear, is surprisingly disjointed and the threads are poorly connected, driving from one moment to the next with a pace that alternates between leisurely and pushy.

Dafoe’s acting deserves a better picture, especially one that allows him to deliver a more meaty and compelling performance. Instead, his work seems like it’s a hostage to forced artistry. There are other actors in the film, notably Rupert Friend as Vincent’s brother Theo, Oscar Isaac as his “friend” Paul Gaugin, Mads Mikkelsen as one of the asylum’s priests, Schnalbe muse Mathieu Amalric as Vincent’s doctor, Emmanuelle Seigner as the country innkeeper who becomes his muse, and Niels Arestrup as a madman in the asylum. All of these characters flit at the periphery of Van Gogh’s life and each, in their own way, try to reach the man before he goes off the deep-end. Like Dafoe’s subdued performance, these actors are fine in their roles, but the surrounding film doesn’t give them any suitable support.

Schanbel himself is a noted artist and painter, which explains his fascination with various artists, as have been the subjects of four of his last five feature films over the preceding 22 years. He always brings some measure of creativity to his projects even if they aren’t entirely successful as At Eternity’s Gate is not.

Review Written

April 9, 2019

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