A cursory glance will tell you actors are drawn to performing the role of Vincent van Gogh. Something in the life of the visionary artist has always been and remains appealing: there’s Kirk Douglas as the Dutch painter in Vincente Minnelli’s Lust For Life (1956); Martin Scorsese portrayed the man in Akira Kurosawa’s vignette film Dreams (1990); there’s a Maurice Pialat biopic (1991); and then more recently — believe me, I’m sorry to remind you — there’s an awful 2010 episode of Doctor Who. Now, Willem Dafoe is in on the act, inhabiting the role of van Gogh’s as a person in emotional and mental turmoil, under the direction of Julian Schnabel.
At Eternity’s Gate starts with Vincent’s first exhibitions, before he relocates to the south of France; he only does so at the behest of Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac; yes, really), not before the sage painter regales the new talent with the lowdown on Parisian schools and artistic inspiration. It’s deathly boring for a long while, suffering from that usual biopic problem: it thinks its audience are idiots who need to be coddled through all the details of the characters’ milieu.
Even if the script (by Louise Kugelberg and Jean-Claude Carrière) is not the brightest, it’s ameliorated by Dafoe’s wonderful vocal delivery. There’s an air of self-possession to his speech, conveyed by that gentle and deep voice; during his breakdowns, this ruptures, and his torment is audible in his throat. There are scenes shared between Vincent and his brother, Theo, that are so affecting in isolation they illuminate the other parts of the film which reach for but don’t achieve similar wellsprings of feeling. In one scene, the brothers lie down in Vincent’s hospital bed, and embrace with a lovely tenderness; in another, Schnabel makes the images of their faces merge, almost as one, superimposed on each other. This sounds abstract, but its purpose is simple: in refusing to cut between the brothers, making them share the screen, Schnabel emphasises that Theo is the only figure of unconditional love in Vincent’s life.
The ending offers a somewhat radical reenvisioning of the usual van Gogh story, and the director’s means of telling the story try to match this visually. Aside from the recreations of the painter’s work in the film’s compositions, Schnabel and his cinematographer Benoît Delhomme’s camera adopts an extreme subjectivity, which proves distracting, and at times, reductive. The painter’s emotional perceptions are performed by the camera’s movements. In moments of frustration, the camera cants and bobs and bounces and tilts, in one instance falling to his feet following an argument with Gauguin. By making this restive camera such a part in the creation of mood, At Eternity’s Gate sometimes sequesters Dafoe’s performance: the result is a canvas distinctly lacking in harmony.
Image: Curzon Artifical Eye.