Vincent Van Gogh may be the art world’s quintessential paradox. That he was a great, idiosyncratic painter is indisputable. Yet, he was also an incurable romantic, zealously religious (he once sought to become a minister), highly argumentative (according to most of his contemporaries), extremely prolific, he cut off his ear, and he committed suicide at the age of 37. Today, he’s a Hobby Lobby superstar.
The subject of numerous cinematic treatments, Van Gogh has been posthumously canonized by the bourgeois who never would have accepted him in his life. They bypass his personal flaws in favor of “Starry Night” and “Sunflower” coffee mugs. He’s more myth now than human. Neither his contemporary Paul Gauguin nor his successor Pablo Picasso have been afforded such whitewashing. Indeed, their character flaws are often still held against them, despite the fact that they are both superior artists to Van Gogh (taking nothing from the Dutchman).
Another cinematic Van Gogh biography comes with about as much anticipation as another retelling of Dickens’ “Christmas Carol.” Yet, Julian Schnabel has produced an aesthetically provocative Van Gogh biopic At Eternity’s Gate (2018). It’s about damned time.
One of the most frustrating things to witness in a gallery or museum is patrons zipping by paintings as if they’re Speedy Gonzales in a mall, spending a few seconds glancing at work that artists labored over for days, weeks, months or years. Schnabel, a painter himself, is having none of that, and paces his movie glacially. Although reactions to the film are predictable as hell, it’s almost refreshing to read audiences and critics harping about the film being so long and so pretentious. That would inspire a yawn, if it weren’t for the fact that Van Gogh is finally pissing people off once again. It’s about damned time.
Apart from the pacing, patrons complain about the impressionistic aesthetic of the film, and the fact that startoday is almost twice the age of Van Gogh at the time of his death. Even a quick look at the artist’s self-portraits reveals the casting is astute: Van Gogh looked three times his age, ugly, ravaged, and cantankerous. As for the aesthetics: this isn’t a really a biopic at all, and indeed we do not need another. Instead, Schnabel has produced a gorgeous requiem.
Dafoe’s intensity is akin to pigment ground into celluloid with raw knuckles. On paper, reading Van Gogh waxing poetic about finding a “new light” would be unbearably pretentious, yet when we watch him painting the landscape before him, we see him practice what he preaches (and this artist was always a preacher). The result is a Van Gogh creation that reinterprets nature (Gauguin, who insisted that artists are to disregard and improve upon nature, would be proud).
Much of the dialogue is taken from Van Gogh’s letters. At times, the sentimentality of his language borders on the saccharine, but it takes a special artist to master sentimentally. scripture passage that says one must be like a child in order to attain the Kingdom: AKA, Eternity’s Gate. We’re reminded that Dafoe previously played an equally provocative Christ. It’s no accident that these are his two best roles. Like a child, Van Gogh finds joy in repetition, and because he couldn’t find it in love, he finds it in paint.did it (early on, before it throttled him). Van Gogh mastered it as well, but only because he backed it up with talent. Yes, he actually talked that way, and we have to remember that painting, once primarily commissioned by the Church, was seen in the 19th century as potentially obsolete with the advent of photography. However, painters of the period, like Van Gogh and Gauguin (played with humorous arrogance by ) set about to prove that death sentence premature. They—the artists- –would be the new priests, subverting common sense, and fought like hell to create a new language, since the Church’s clergy had become hopelessly complacent and status quo. Dafoe captures Van Gogh’s childlike innocence. He was desperate for unconditional love and, by God, that’s the preacher in him, making us recall the
Van Gogh tells his priest (the typically wonderful): “Perhaps God made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet.” In this, he speaks the language of Mahler, who also realized he wouldn’t live to see his work accepted. Van Gogh’s heights are reached only through painting. Everything else is devastation. He takes Gauguin’s advice to escape the hierarchical community and head South. Gauguin joins him, but even that is disastrous. Gauguin was and remains a more innovative artist than Van Gogh, and while he rightly assesses his peer as being as much sculptor as painter, he doesn’t quite have the intuition to realize that their relationship is one of unrequited love. The chemistry between Dafoe and Isaac is bewitching.
At Eternity’s Gate focuses on the last years of Van Gogh’s brief life. Even then it’s fragmented, and by keeping it focused on “being Van Gogh,” (Schabel’s description) it becomes the most satisfying cinematic interpretation of the painter to date.
Initially, Schabel’s decision regarding the depiction of Van Gogh’s death is a curious one. He opts for a flimsy minority theory, although cause of death was almost certainly suicide. Yet, artistically and psychologically, it makes sense in the context of Schnabel’s Van Gogh. There’s an early scene in which the artist becomes almost violent in reaction to a teacher mocking his work. Van Gogh’s death, as presented here, throws out the notion of a “romantic suicide of a martyr for art,” and renders it even more visceral than the actual event. That’s apt; a bit like a requiem.