Director Julian Schnabel specializes in slow-moving, intensely focused dramas. His newest film “At Eternity’s Gate” is no exception, his camera focused on Van Gogh’s face and his corresponding paintings and madness. He seems to be literally talking to us. For some, the direct contact brings the questions and moral of the story into sharp focus. For others, it’s a droll exercise.
Willem Dafoe stars as Vincent Van Gogh in the last few years of his life. Never recognized for his artwork, he is constantly rejected by the masses and the artistic world, his only friends fellow painter Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) and brother, Theo (Rupert Friend). As he wanders through France looking for canvases to paint, his depression and anxiety drive him into psychotic episodes. He realizes that his painting is the only thing that gives him joy and solitude from his madness.
No one really knows what Van Gogh suffered from, but today he would probably be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression of some sort. Schnabel is really able to put the audience in that mental headspace through his camera work. Through erratic handheld shots of Van Gogh’s feet to long takes of environment landscapes, the viewer sees the mania, depression and joy of his life.
The film however feels repetitive to a degree with the continuous swing back and forth of Van Gogh’s emotions. In part, this is by design as Van Gogh’s topy-turvy life is balanced in the extreme. But, for the viewer, it can feel a bit been-there, done-that after awhile.
Willem Dafoe does great work as Van Gogh, but at the same time, he is miscast. Van Gogh was a 37-year-old Dutch man. Dafoe is a 63-year-old American. It’s hard to bridge that difference in a convincing way.
People in Van Gogh’s life continually ask him why he paints, especially when so many of them find his work repulsive. He can only answer that he paints because he must. It is the only thing that gives him peace, and he wants people to see the world the way he does, hopefully something that lasts long after he is gone.
The film does a great job of bringing that ideology to life if the viewer is able to give the film enough berth to impress upon them.