At Eternity's Gate is a confronting portrait of Vincent van Gogh

by James Robins / 19 December, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - At Eternity's Gate movie

The Van Gogh biopic gives Willem Dafoe the opportunity to make a lasting impressionist.

In the years before his death in 1890, Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh painted at frightening speed, producing more than 200 works, including several of his most influential pieces. But those years were also van Gogh’s most troubled. At Eternity’s Gate is an abrasive, confronting portrait of that visionary mind coming undone.

Epilepsy, syphilis, bipolar disorder. Whatever it was, veteran actor Willem Dafoe portrays van Gogh here as an agitated loner driven by an almost ascetic compulsion for painting – and nothing else.

His director, Julian Schnabel, is a prominent painter himself and a contemporary of Jean-Michel Basquiat – the subject of his first film. But he is clearly not interested in creating a generic biopic of a man who has been portrayed many times on screen. The film flits manically from experience to experience, charting a demise, a rejection. We get the sunflowers, sure, but they’re wilted and forlorn. The severed ear shows up, too, but the consequence is a stint in an asylum.

Rather, the director’s fascination is with the inner life of the painter and those spasms of ecstatic creativity. In one early scene, van Gogh wearily takes off his worn boots, notices the way they catch the light, quickly sets up an easel and daubs the canvas with humid smears. Today, A Pair of Shoes, 1888 hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Indeed, At Eternity’s Gate dwells on the gap between his obscurity then and his celebrity now. Everyone today knows the name, even if they can’t pronounce it: van Goff? Van Go? Van Gokhh? For his entire life, though, he was chided and reviled. Other painters were especially condescending. Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) scolds him for laziness, his canvases lumpen with blobs of paint. What Gauguin criticised as undisciplined we now understand as fundamentally alive with texture. Only his brother Theo (Rupert Friend) tries to empathise with whatever addles his brain.

The artist as madman – it’s almost a cliché, yet Schnabel at least tries to capture something of the painter’s frenzied prodigiousness. The camera vibrates with unsteady motion, flitting from first to third person, often pushed so tight to the actors’ faces that their breath fogs the lens.

And I don’t want to be unkind, but Willem Dafoe has always had the look of a man possessed by some kind of demonic presence. His commitment to mining the depths of van Gogh’s despair and inspiration here is astonishing: suddenly breaking into a fit of primal wrath or writhing in the French earth overcome with the beauty of the landscape. It’s one of those “born to play” sort of roles.

At Eternity’s Gate has many rough edges. Its impressionistic style can be tough going, but the film captures the tragedy of van Gogh’s story. As he says mournfully, “I’m a painter for people who aren’t born yet.”



Video: Transmission Films

This article was first published in the December 22, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


What filmmaker Andrea Bosshard learned from her goldsmith father Kobi
107381 2019-06-19 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

What filmmaker Andrea Bosshard learned from her go…

by Ken Downie

Filmmaker Andrea Bosshard inherited a creative streak from her goldsmith father Kobi but he also taught her an important life lesson.

Read more
Will Uber disrupt itself with its Jump scooters?
107383 2019-06-19 00:00:00Z Tech

Will Uber disrupt itself with its Jump scooters?

by Peter Griffin

Around 800 electric scooters arrived in Wellington this week, with local start-up Flamingo and Uber-owned Jump launching at virtually the same time.

Read more
Libra: Why Facebook is the best and worst company to create a cryptocurrency
107416 2019-06-19 00:00:00Z Tech

Libra: Why Facebook is the best and worst company…

by Peter Griffin

There is a strong incentive for Facebook to own the crypto space, the way it has social media.

Read more
Win a double pass to Yesterday
107340 2019-06-18 09:48:44Z Win

Win a double pass to Yesterday

by The Listener

Yesterday, everyone knew The Beatles. Today, only Jack remembers their songs. He’s about to become a very big deal.

Read more
Mass protests protect Hong Kong's legal autonomy from China – for now
107337 2019-06-18 00:00:00Z World

Mass protests protect Hong Kong's legal autonomy f…

by Kelly Chernin

Protesters in Hong Kong have achieved a major victory in their fight to protect their legal system from Chinese interference.

Read more
Sir Roger Hall on why we need to treasure NZ's portrait art
107286 2019-06-18 00:00:00Z Arts

Sir Roger Hall on why we need to treasure NZ's por…

by Roger Hall

On an Australian art tour, playwright Sir Roger Hall found that a portrait gallery can be so much more than a snapshot of a country’s social history.

Read more
ANZ boss's departure: 'What was the NZ board doing to monitor expenses?'
Why you shouldn't force kids to eat everything on their plates
107161 2019-06-18 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Why you shouldn't force kids to eat everything on…

by Jennifer Bowden

Forcing children to finish everything on their plates sets them up for a bad relationship with food.

Read more