REEL Review – At Eternity’s Gate (2018)

At Eternity’s Gate (2018)

Director: Julian Schnabel | Runtime: 1h 51mins | Drama, Biography

A look at the life of famous artist Vincent Van Gogh, more specifically, his time in the south of France. As he works on his paintings and experiences nature, he slowly becomes unsure about his decisions and his sanity.

Despite being one of the most famous names in artistic history, it’s surprising that Vincent Van Gogh has never had much cinematic exposure. Kirk Douglas played him in 1956’s Lust for Life, along with a massive leap for modern animation in 2017’s moving oil painting, Loving Vincent. While Minnelli’s 1956 turn was the definitive biopic for the legendary figure, it seems Schnabel’s latest arthouse take has ushered in a new style, for a 21st Century audience.

One of the most compelling parts about this biopic is it’s depiction of Van Gogh himself, as an artist but more importantly, as a fragile human being. More than likely you’ve seen Loving Vincent and realised that their approach paints a mysterious picture, an enigmatic figure that people merely exaggerated about. But Schnabel makes sure that Van Gogh is the centre of attention, utilising his powerful leading man Willem Dafoe (more on him later), and using the first person technique to really get into the head of the artist. Also, despite having such a focus on the central character, Schnabel’s appreciation of the French surroundings are what really bring beauty to each scene. Each one has there place though, as a major part of Van Gogh’s descent is about the solace found in the beauty of nature, and capturing each blade of grass, the meaning of a landscape and the beauty of a simple tree root really paint him as a true artist, not just a mystery figure on the face of artistic history.

Despite the personality of Van Gogh being somewhat mysterious, it’s no mystery that playing a historical figure, in the eyes of the Academy, is a goldmine. So it’s no surprise that Willem Dafoe received his fourth Oscar nod for his performance. But it doesn’t feel bait like so many do, he actually commands his scenes with his unbelievable fragility, embodying everything he should and subtly approaching Van Gogh’s descent. Even in the simplest scene, and easily one of the best, is a simple conversation between Vincent and a priest (played by Mads Mikkelsen), that is as philosophically charged as it is well performed. But with no real power behind delivery, it’s merely a soft approach that proves the power of the performance, and proof that even in the most artistic and trying films, a character is still one of the most important aspects.

Honestly this film will not be for everyone, but it’s intriguing style and great performances are enough to sell this. But more importantly, Schnabel uses the arthouse style to do justice to such a character of artistic influence and complexity. Even the most well-known part of Van Gogh’s story, the cutting off of his ear, is barely shown and for the majority is only seen from slight head turns. This, and many other aspects of Schnabel’s film, are done to preserve the nature of a historic figure and emphasise the complexities of, not just the genius of Vincent Van Gogh, but the human mind as well.


Rating: 4 out of 5.

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