Film Review: ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ is Willem Dafoe at His Very Best, Portraying Artist Van Gogh

Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh in Julian Schnabel's AT ETERNITY'S GATE. Photo credit: Lily Gavin

Directed by Julian Schnabel, At Eternity’s Gate is a colorful and emotional look at Van Gogh: often depicted, endlessly revered and still misunderstood. Schnabel comes closest to the perfect imagination of it all.

This film Julian Schnabel’s take on the troubled life of legendary artist Vincent Van Gogh is a mildly tongue-in-cheek recount of Van Gogh’s troubled final days. The art, of course, is rich and stunning, and the script is strong and witty. But Willem Dafoe’s performance as Van Gogh is intense and powerful and the best part of the movie- beyond his acting, just his voice stands as great- it has a gentle cadence that you hope Van Gogh really spoke with- a compliment that informs the idea that Willem Dafoe’s voice is now what Van Gogh’s art sounds like. 

The story explores Van Gogh in his most confident gymnasium: nature. Specifically, the countrysides of France. But events are informed by his paintings themselves as well as the parade of facts and fallacies about his life and final days- do not even consider it an extremely indulgent documentary: “This is not a forensic biography about the painter. It is about what it is to be an artist. It is fiction, and in the act of pursuing our goal, if we lean towards the divine light, we might even stumble onto the truth. The only way to describe a work of art is to make a work of art,” says Schnabel. 

At Eternity’s Gate, featuring Willem Dafoe as Van Gogh

So, for Schnabel, this is art. And the display is obsessively sincere and turbulent- when Van Gogh runs, you run. When Van Gogh thinks, you think. This, of course, is the most polarizing element of Schnabel’s kit of cinematic magic tricks. But it works here particularly well, since Van Gogh was truly so inside of his head. 

The film was shot over 38 days beginning in September 2017 on location in Arles, Bouches-du-Rhône and Auvers-sur-Oise, France, all locations where Van Gogh lived during his final years. The colors will strike you- stunning views, even Van Gogh’s costume feels right- his bright and primary look, his organic skin and hat- he as a portrait of a person is as iconic as his other works. The landscapes and interiors are explosively bold, due to vivid angles and golden hour captures.

Schnabel’s one over-step that pushes this film into occasional art-school-experiment is the use of a half-focused shot- at times it works- mirroring the visual sensation of having tears well up in your eyes. But at other times, it is nonsense, and chaotic. Was it a visual demonstration of the “lies and fallacies that bring life to reality”? “The foggiest…”? A bit too on-the-nose. 

On the whole, At Eternity’s Gate is a creative and surprisingly touching look at a man as a human, a life as a piece of art, and a career as an artist. Julian Schnabel is at his most watchable and engaging- an equally chaotic and peaceful treatment that is appropriately scaled to Van Gogh’s life. 

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

Opening in select theaters this weekend. Find showtimes at IMDB.

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