At Eternity’s Gate

Review by Rich Cline | 4/5

At Eternity's Gate
dir Julian Schnabel
prd Jon Kilik
scr Jean-Claude Carriere, Julian Schnabel, Louise Kugelberg
with Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Niels Arestrup, Anne Consigny, Lolita Chammah, Amira Casar, Vincent Perez, Vladimir Consigny
release US 16.Nov.18,
UK 29.Mar.19
18/France CBS 1h51

friend mikkelsen amalric

At Eternity's Gate
Earthy and atmospheric, this inventive biopic about Vincent van Gogh has a remarkable intimacy to it, as artist-filmmaker Julian Schnabel uses handheld camerawork and a probing script to get into the painter's mindset. This makes the film feel pungently present-tense, adding urgency to a meandering exploration of the intense pressures on those for whom creativity is a vocation.
In the bustling 1888 art scene in Paris, the painters' community has rigid rules and rejects anything new or different. Vincent (Dafoe) and his brother Theo (Friend) bristle against this, and find a kindred spirit in Paul Gaugin (Isaac). Paul decides to travel to a remote, quiet island, while Vincent seeks better light in the South of France. Outside of the scene, Vincent reconnects with both the people and the land, producing nearly a painting per day. But he struggles with public acceptance of his work, and his mental instability lands him in various institutions.
The film opens with a gentle voiceover, as Vincent expresses his desire to be seen as just a normal man. It's fascinating to watch him discover portrait-worthy subjects in any setting, then to layer on the paint in dense colours and textures that ripple with light. Schnabel fills the screen with clever touches, referencing specific paintings while taking on much larger themes. Benoit Delhomme's stunning cinematography captures both small moments and grand landscapes, while Tatiana Lisovkaia's lush piano-based score adds layers of moodiness.

And then there's Dafoe, who fully inhabits the role, right down to his paint-stained fingernails. It's a gorgeously understated performance that ripples with curiosity and emotion, and extending to mental anguish. It's fascinating to watch his eyes fill with the light of each setting, capturing nature and people with equal insight. Often shot in fish-eye close-up, each member of the powerhouse supporting cast nicely underplay their roles, with telling angles and vivid connections.

This is a flat-out beautiful film, so quietly engulfing that it transports the viewer right into the story. Some of the conversations feel a little arch, as Vincent discusses his fast-painting, almost sculptural approach with various people. "I don't invent the picture," he says, "I free it." He must be unconstrained to paint. So it feels unbearably cruel to see him in a straitjacket crosscut against his critical success. But this is certainly not a misery-fest: the film is a celebration of creativity and people who go against the grain to push the world in new directions.

cert 12 themes, violence 11.Feb.19

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© 2019 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall