Vincent Van Gogh has become perhaps the most cinematically invented and re-invented of artists since red-haired Kirk Douglas embodied the passionate, tortured genius in 1956’s Lust for Life. The dramatization Van Gogh’s later years, his social exclusion in the village of Arles, his hospitalisation at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence for an undiagnosed mental illness, and the tragic obscurity surrounding his death[ – seem now as uninspiring as the latest Marvel re-boot. If you’re hoping for anything fresh or new from Julian Schnabel’s rendition of the ‘frenzied artistic hero driven to his own demise’ cliché, At Eternity’s Gate will perhaps come as a disappointment.
Unimaginative narrative aside, Schnabel’s own experience as an artist provides a more nuanced approach to Van Gogh’s art practice; with longer segments of the film dedicated to the artist at work with his thick oil paints, and close-ups of his brush technique, exploring the bumpy imperfections of the hand-stretched canvasses that would have been available in the late 19th Century. Willem Dafoe seems to slip into Van Gogh’s famously dilapidated leather shoes with ease, moving between exchanges in French and English amongst other characters such as his beloved brother Theo (played by a wonderfully compassionate soft-eyed Robert Friend.) There is none of the romantic melodrama of Lust for Life in the quiet exchanges between the Van Gogh brothers, Schnabel washes over their conversations and embraces with a subdued respect. One of the strongest scenes followed Van Gogh’s confinement at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Theo holds his fragile form in absolute silence, a moving representation of love in conditions where mental illness was treated with hostility and ignorance.
Oscar Isaac’s performance as the disillusioned hedonist Paul Gaugin is equally as commendable as Dafoe’s Van Gogh, with far less of the misogynist bravado this character exhibited in last year’s award-winning Loving Vincent. Schnabel instead focuses on Gaugin as the artistic antagonist, carving a path opposite Van Gogh that fleshes out the context in which they were both fighting to be seen. Schnabel even tips his hat at Bernadette Murphy’s breakthrough book Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story from 2016, in which a new hypothesis revealed the doctor’s diagram of Van Gogh’s infamous ear where only a segment of the lobe remained. Schnabel has Van Gogh sitting at his doctor’s appointment recounting these facts, replicating the 1889 work Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear.
At Eternity’s Gate is a good film, but it’s not ground-breaking – neither does Schnabel choose to approach another part of Van Gogh’s life that hasn’t become a myth, like the false allegation that he ate yellow paint to make himself feel happier. Loving Vincent, with its 65 000 hand-painted frames created over 6 years, feels much more authentic and heart-felt a tribute to the artist who could not live without painting. Schnabel’s re-hash left me feeling empty.
By Carmen Walker-Vazquez
Image courtesy of The Telegraph