AT ETERNITY'S GATE
THREE AND A HALF STARS Willem Dafoe stars in this biopic about the latter years of Vincent Van Gogh.
Willem Dafoe, Oscar Isaac
PERIOD DRAMA #ATETERNITYSGATE
Painter / director Julian Schnabel (THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY) turns his twin passions on the latter years of Vincent Van Gogh in this impressionistic portrait of the troubled artist. Coincidence perhaps, yet it feels very much like a heartfelt response to 2017’s animated LOVING VINCENT, another impressionistic account of the same period. Where the latter roto-scoped actors then hand-painted the drama, Schnabel stays in a kind of reality, deploying a variety of visual effects to relate Van Gogh’s unique view of the world.
Willem Dafoe is eye-catching in the lead and not simply because of his more-than-passing similarity for the artist. His craggy features immediately lend themselves to Van Gogh’s layered, craggy style. More than that, he gets to the essence of Vincent’s commitment to art, his punishing need to paint, his air of confusion and inner turmoil - this is the man who famously cut off his ear after all. For Van Gogh, at least according to Schnabel, had a burning, unquenchable desire to let everyone see what only he could see. That passion, and its companion pain, is wonderfully articulated by Dafoe. Likewise the varying perspectives that Schnabel utilises to help us see through Van Gogh’s eyes: locked camera, distorted angles and blurred focus all help create the kind of reality that was deeply familiar to the artist.
It’s unfortunate then how much these ideas are overplayed. Schnabel revisits these techniques and motifs time and again, looping back to repeat scenes and encounters all the while employing a thundering score that in no time has outstayed its welcome. They’re perplexing choices that along with the decision to have actors speak in both French and English, with Americans retaining American accents, becomes significantly distracting.
It’s unfortunate because this is a movie you want to like a lot more than it allows. Not only is Van Gogh’s story the epitome of the starving artist (despite his fame today, he only sold one painting in his lifetime), Schanbel conjures a terrific performance from Dafoe as well as offering something bold and unusual in terms of visual storytelling. But in the end, too much is too much, and it all but undoes the film.