Current Issue #488

Film Review: At Eternity's Gate

Film Review: At Eternity's Gate

This defiantly non-traditional study of the final years of Vincent van Gogh’s life is grounded in an often-beautiful performance by Willem Dafoe.

Julian Schnabel directed, co-wrote and co-edited this not-quite-biopic eight years after his underappreciated Miral and eleven years after his truly startling The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, and while there’s much here to admire, he still finds it hard to stop himself from repeatedly going over-the-top. The camera swirls and swoops to almost sick-making effect; wild technical tricks sometimes prove baffling; and there are weird, semi-freeze-frame images that are meant to look Van-Gogh-ish but instead seem clunky.

Although 25 years older than Vincent was when he died, Dafoe is certainly the best reason to persevere with the film. We see his Vincent wander the countryside in the South of France and, shockingly, watch from his ocularly-challenged first-person perspective as he accosts a woman (Lolita Chammah) in a warning of the madness to come. The dialogue in these early scenes is in French, but then Schnabel switches to English so as not to constrict his non-European players, only reverting back later when Vincent feels bewildered and threatened. And who knew French could be so frightening?

Unlike other van Gogh movies (like Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo, with Tim Roth), Willem’s Vincent is presented as intermittently almost charming and well-liked in the community, and there’s even a glimmer of attraction between him and his landlady, even if she can’t stand his appalling body odour. But he’s becoming restless and possibly dangerous too, and eventually we fear him almost as much as we fear for him.

Vincent has a close and tender relationship with his brother Theo (Rupert Friend), and also establishes a pleasant friendship with Paul Gauguin, who’s played coolly and elegantly by Oscar Isaac in quite a departure from Vincent Cassel’s more grungy and feral take on the guy in last year’s Gauguin. Paul discusses starting a revolution and enthuses about van Gogh’s immense talent, and the two get closer and closer until Vincent, apparently rattled by all the praise, really loses it.

After a spell in a barbaric institution, a show-off shot where the strait-jacketed inmates go out for a stroll and a nice cameo by Mads Mikkelesen as an unnamed priest who attempts to understand Vincent’s mind, we properly get down to what we all know is coming, and Schnabel and his co-writers put forward a modern sub-conspiracy-theory questioning the circumstances of van Gogh’s death.

Of all the problems here, the most important to point out is Schnabel’s irksome, pointless and already old-hat use of jiggly hand-held camera, some of which could cause motion-sickness-prone punters to feel decidedly nauseous. One particularly notable scene has Dafoe’s Vincent and Isaac’s Gauguin walking and talking in the country as the camera operator runs around and around and around them in a way that perhaps is intended to suggest Vincent’s disturbed state of mind but, instead, leaves you concerned that the cinematographer is going to collide with the actors.

Nevertheless, Dafoe is fairly magnificent, and allows the intrusive camera unrestricted access to every line and crag on his famed face, as he depicts a van Gogh who often speaks less like a Dutch painter and more like a German philosopher or even a 20th Century therapy patient, as he makes his tormented way towards eternity.

At Eternity’s Gate (M) is in cinemas from February 14

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