Getting van Gogh: Willem Dafoe and Julian Schnabel create a masterpiece

At Eternity’s Gate stars Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh during the final years of the artist’s life.
Photo credit:  Lily Gavin At Eternity’s Gate stars Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh during the final years of the artist’s life. Photo credit: Lily Gavin

By its very nature, portraying the life of an artist of any medium on film while incorporating the substance of his work into the overall aesthetic is a risky endeavor. Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that visual artist and director Julian Schnabel has helmed two of the most resonant films about the lives and work of famous painters: 1996’s Basquiat, and one of this year’s most fascinating movies, At Eternity’s Gate. The latter is based on the life and work of Vincent van Gogh, and it is neither full biography nor pure reinterpretation of his paintings.

Instead, Schnabel examines the artist’s place in the world around him, his perspective, his technical and emotional attachment to the process, and the physicality of the act of painting. The film does so with a fascinating, hyper-realistic style that contextualizes van Gogh while removing the meaning of time, place, and even language in shaping him and his legacy.

The film follows the last two years of the artist’s life, which were famously his most productive. Finding the bustle of Paris overwhelming, he leaves for the countryside of Arles, to share his vision of nature with the world. Even there, he finds the small-mindedness of the people around him stifling, and, compounded by his deteriorating mental health, he falls into psychotic episodes that he rarely remembers.

When you look at a painting, you are never asked to imagine that it is real. You are expected to be aware of its construction, the intention of its brushstrokes, the framing, and the use of color. Schnabel does the same with At Eternity’s Gate. Willem Dafoe is exceptional in the lead role, and the fact that he is nearly 30 years older than van Gogh was at his death emphasizes the artist’s estrangement from his contemporaries, such as Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). The bold decision to have him speak English to people speaking French alienates him even further. The film is not strictly from van Gogh’s point of view, but the two are connected, almost as much as van Gogh is to his own paintings.

The film is far from immersive, to its credit; the shaky camera reminds us that the simple act of remembering him makes us participants in his story, and when the perspective shifts to van Gogh’s, we see the world the way he did: the color, vibrancy, and texture of nature contrasting with dark, directionless, featureless cities and towns. When half of the screen goes blurry—references to possible failing vision—it is somehow more beautiful, bringing out colors and shapes we did not see before, reminding us that observation requires active engagement in the subject.

Whenever films about the same thing are released at about the same time, it’s inevitable to compare them. It’s possible to have two worthwhile stories on the same subject, but this is not the case with the two van Gogh movies: At Eternity’s Gate and last year’s Loving Vincent. The latter made waves for being fully animated in van Gogh’s style using only paint. It was a pretty exercise, but a hollow one; the movie was a series of interrogations by Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) with rotoscoped actors reciting facts you could find on van Gogh’s Wikipedia page. The meaning of the effect was lost, cheapening the hard work that went into it by not making it an essential part of the story or enhancing the audience’s understanding. Loving Vincent was pretty, but At Eternity’s Gate is beautiful, and one of the year’s best films.

At Eternity’s Gate

R, 111 minutes, Violet Crown Cinema

See it again

The Bishop’s Wife. NR, 109 minutes. Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, December 8

Opening this week

Check theater websites for complete listings.

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056  

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213  

Buttons, George Takei’s Allegiance on Broadway

Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000  

At Eternity’s Gate, Maria by Callas  

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