Review: At Eternity’s Gate12 February 2019
Content warning: Mental illness
At Eternity’s Gate is the latest film inspired by visionary post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh. It is set in the turbulent last years of van Gogh’s life, as he grapples with mental illness, spirituality and an all-encompassing compulsion to paint the world as he sees it. Director Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) does his best to understand the man behind the icon; to strip away novelty and gaze at the star-crossed van Gogh operating on an alien frequency.
The film is pointedly empathetic, if a little lofty. Scriptwriters Jean-Claude Carrière, Louise Kugelberg and Schnabel, who drew dialogue from van Gogh’s written correspondence, do not give him a crooked sentence. Van Gogh is his letters–even in a straitjacket, his voice is the calloused warbling of his written prose. Nonetheless, Willem Defoe’s remarkable portrayal captures a brilliant, isolated van Gogh at the brink of himself.
At Eternity’s Gate embodies this imagined van Gogh. The rolling, syncopated soundtrack by Tatiana Lisovskaya clings to each shot, mirroring van Gogh’s erratic presence. Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme’s handheld camera, using a split dioptre lens, stalks van Gogh until you feel you may be seeing through his corneas, moving with his lopsided gait. And you might like to stay in this haze, weaving through the wheat fields of Southern France in his body, but Schnabel doesn’t let you. He breaks his film into islands of feeling, curating a jarring assortment of scenes and experiments into a dizzying cinematic carousel of yellow and blue.
Schnabel wanted to push boundaries with this film and he has, but the repeated voice-overs, sharp cuts and special effects feel a little petulant and heavy-handed at times. His technique, counter-intuitively, seems to reveal a lack of confidence in the elemental power of his film–the cast, mise en scène and subject matter could have done more had they been given some space to breathe. Even the circumstances of van Gogh’s death are distorted for narrative effect, which seems an unnecessary intervention.
When the film does work, though, you are there: van Gogh is real and heartbreaking. The timeline sees him during his most prolific years of painting, when he completed many of his best-loved works and at the same time descended into pain and illness. Defoe’s devoted performance is deserving of the accolades he is bound to receive; his vulnerable van Gogh is enough to make At Eternity’s Gate worthwhile.
There are times, too, where Schnabel’s choices create a magic conventional filmmaking could not have achieved. The disrupted narrative means you hear of van Gogh’s psychotic episodes second-hand, rather than seeing events van Gogh himself could not recall. At Eternity’s Gate insists you live the reality of van Gogh, the imagined self, and it is this which sets it apart from the many biopics before it.
At Eternity’s Gate in cinemas now.