Review: At Eternity’s Gate

18 February 2019

In one of the first scenes of At Eternity’s Gate, a weary van Gogh (played by Willem Dafoe) arrives at the French town of Arles. His room, and the landscape surrounding it, has none of the vibrancy or vitality that we associate with his paintings. Instead, the town is established with a shot of a foggy field spotted with dying sunflowers. His room is grey and decaying, wind causing the window panes to creak open and shut. Van Gogh, too, appears to be declining: he is sallow and shivering. Like a stressed smoker who desperately fumbles to light their cigarette, van Gogh unpacks his equipment in a frenzy, and begins to paint his drooping leather shoes. Suddenly, the wind dies down and the creaking of the window panes fades away. The camera becomes steady. The shoes, brown and threadbare on a bleak tiled floor, come to life on van Gogh’s canvas. For the first time in the film, the viewer feels at ease as the camera zooms slowly into the finished work, the room now silent.

The first time—and possibly the last. There are a lot of things with which director Julian Schnabel concerns himself in this film, but the audience’s comfort is not one of them. From the title alone, which shares its name with van Gogh’s painting of a hopeless and presumably dying old man, we know that Schnabel is interested in the death of van Gogh. While the film recounts the major events of van Gogh’s final months in the order that they are supposed to have happened—his move to Arles, his time spent with contemporary Paul Gauguin that ended in van Gogh cutting off his own ear, his subsequent stints in hospital and an asylum, and his final days in Auvers-sur-Oise—the film’s narrative is far from linear.

Instead, Schnabel presents “vignettes”—meandering conversations, traipses through the southern French landscape, altercations with locals—that are intersected by short periods of black screen. Handheld camerawork that seems to have a mind of its own, and rising music that cuts out joltingly adds to the dissonance and fragmentation of the onscreen events. Schnabel hopes that these vignettes amount to an overall impression left on the viewer, like a series of paintings in a gallery or “different chords in a piece of music”, as he puts it.

What, then, is the impression that Schnabel hopes to leave on us? Dafoe’s van Gogh says that he wants his paintings to “make people feel like they are more alive”. While deviating in order to explain the narrative of van Gogh’s final two years, the film continually returns to this idea, which is at the crux of his life and work: that nature and the world is beautiful. No matter what you think of the frenetic camerawork or the fragmented storytelling, you cannot deny the beauty of the landscapes and other subjects that van Gogh paints—even if what he paints happens to be a gnarled old shoe. That the world and the things that inhabit it all contain their own kind of beauty, while clichéd, is a message worth hearing, and At Eternity’s Gate succeeds in translating it—even if the techniques employed by the filmmakers are a little off-kilter. If that isn’t enough to draw you in, at least see it for the stellar performance by Willem Dafoe, which has earned him a Best Actor nomination. Julian Schnabel has known him for 30 years and “never thought about anyone else playing the role”, which probably explains why Dafoe seems to fit so well into van Gogh’s shoes. He can paint them pretty well too.

At Eternity’s Gate is in cinemas now.

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