At Eternity’s Gate, the latest Vincent van Gogh biopic, starring Willem Dafoe as van Gogh, directed by Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is a purposefully disjointed and jarring look at both his genius and vision, but also his dark decline into mental illness in his final days.
The film also stars Oscar Isaac as friend and fellow painter Paul Gaugin.
The film brings to life van Gogh’s final years painting landscapes of the countryside in Arles in southern France. There he meets hostile villagers who reject his work and increasingly become more wary of his presence in town.
Shot with a handheld camera that nervously depicts the protagonist’s unsettled mind and restlessness from his perspective. The score oftentimes reiterates the slightly off-kilter perspective of van Gogh with its dissonance.
A main theme throughout the film is the contrasting imagery of the natural world around him: earth, grass, leaves, tree roots, soft pastures, and harsh rocky terrain. One particularly powerful image in the film is a field of dead sunflowers.
“When facing a landscape I see nothing but eternity,” says van Gogh in a voiceover that interjects a scene in the film. “Am I the only one to see it?”
The film is filled with one-liners designed to capture van Gogh’s outlook on his future and life in general in his final days:
“Maybe God made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet. It is said, Life is for sowing. The harvest is not here.”
“I can make people feel what it’s like to be alive.”
“I’ve spent all my life alone, in a room. I need to go out and work to forget myself. I want to be out of control. I need to be in a feverish state. It’s called the act of painting for a reason.”
“I wanted so much to share what I see. Now I just think about my relationship to eternity.”
These quotes all speak to a characerization of van Gogh as looking towards eternity and the afterlife, but also a resignation to his life on earth.
All in all it was a beautiful film. It was both artistic and stylistic in the shots and cinematography it employed. The score matched the visual shots with coherent synchronization. Defoe’s depiction of van Gogh was definitely worthy of the Oscar nomination his performance garnered. This latest telling certainly adds to the collection of similar films that try to make sense of the mysterious final days of his life and is worth your time. If you’re not convinced, check out the trailer below.