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At Eternity’s Gate

by on December 5, 2018
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When Willem Dafoe was still young, there was something about him that seemed quite ancient. Now that he’s older, he retains an eerie vitality that allows him to effortlessly play a man three decades younger than himself.

Many say the art of Vincent van Gogh is similar ageless.

Here was a man quite literally obsessed with his work, and yet he only sold a single painting during his short lifetime. “At Eternity’s Gate” is a chronicle of his last, lonely days living in the tiny villages of Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise, where he cranked out an astonishing body of work that will live on in immortality.

I’ll confess, at first I was put off by yet another film about van Gogh. Just last year we had “Loving Vincent,” an Oscar-nominated animated movie that used imagery by modern painters to relate the story.

And yet I found “At Eternity’s Gate” to be a breath of fresh air. Dafoe gives a transformative performance as the artist, depicting a man as wrapped up by his own demons as his desire to share his vision of how he sees the world.

Rather than portraying von Gogh as a man who made great art despite his mental instability, director Julian Schnabel, who co-wrote the script with Louise Kugelberg and Jean-Claude Carrière, shows them as inextricably entwined.

Dafoe’s lean, rawboned face turns out to be a surprisingly good match for the features shown in van Gogh’s various self-portraits. The photography by Benoît Delhomme is stunning, with many wordless passages of him just wandering around the French countryside, feeling inspired and feverishly getting it down on canvass.

Rupert Friend plays his brother, Theo, who supports him financially and, on the rare occasions when they’re in the same place, emotionally. They have a very tender moment where Theo comes to the asylum where Vincent has been committed, and cuddles him just as they did on cold nights as boys.

Oscar Isaac makes an impression as fellow painter and friend Paul Gauguin, who is angry and confident to van Gogh’s placid timidity. Both struggled to establish themselves in the face of Impressionism, but while van Gogh wanted to evolve from it and create a new form painting builton what he called “sunshine,” Gauguin rejected the old masters entirely. (Though he concedes Monet is “not bad.”)

Mads Mikkelsen and Mathieu Amalric play, respectively, a priest who struggles to reconcile van Gogh’s faith in God with paintings he considers to be ugly and disturbing, and Dr. Paul Gachet, one of van Gogh’s doctors and the subject of one of his most famous paintings.

The film’s title comes from one of van Gogh’s lesser-known works (if there is such a thing), “Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate).” Van Gogh speaks about his love for painting nature, musing that while flowers may fade and wilt, his capturing of them in paint will live on — or at least have a chance to.

I liked how the film handled van Gogh’s infamous ear cutting. Rather than fetishizing the incident, Schnabel treats it as just one more episode for a man who struggled to reconcile the real world with the disparate, chaotic one he experienced in his mind. After the incident, the director depicts it by just having Dafoe’s head turned away from that side.

Lovely and insightful, “At Eternity’s Gate” celebrates the art of Vincent van Gogh without trying to obscure the madness and genius of the man behind it.

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