Yes, we just had a semi-biopic on Vincent van Gogh not too long ago with Loving Vincent; the trippy, experimental effort that saw well-known actors turned into water color figures. And, hey, in the end, that worked out rather well. Now, we get another film about the famous painter with At Eternity’s Gate, which has the wonderful Willem Dafoe headlining as van Gogh. Surprisingly, though, this is not the familiar, Oscar-bait type of feature that one expects around late November (the time of its theatrical release). It’s a rather deep, philosophical exploration at the late painter’s last days.
Dafoe narrates portions of the movie, delivering a self-examination on his life and where he has ended up thus far. Although van Gogh was a drunkard, there are few scenes that actually show him drinking and getting outraged. One of the most famous events in van Gogh’s life, in which he cuts off his own ear, is shown after the fact. Director Julian Schnabel doesn’t go for the obvious or the expected here, giving us a fragmented look at the tortured artist and the demons that haunted him. It’s a challenging, Malick-like effort, but also just as deeply moving.
Schnabel and cinematographer Beniot Delhomme capture some of the best scenery in a film from 2018. Nearly every frame is like watching a painting in motion - bright, luscious, and breathtaking. Those familiar with van Gogh’s work will quickly recognize some of the characters and locations that appear in A Eternity’s Gate, who or which would later become subjects of his paintings. But Schnabel doesn’t make these well known subjects conspicuous for the sake of nostalgia; they become major players in van Gogh’s chaotic final days.
The relationships that van Gogh has with his brother, Theo (Rupert Friend), and fellow painter Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) are given plenty of depth, despite the fragmented structure of the film. But this is Dafoe’s show, and he owns it. While Dafoe may be much older than van Gogh was at the time of his death, his performance as the tormented artist is magnificent. He captures the downward spiral perfectly and, thanks to Schnabel’s direction, we feel like we are witnessing these events firsthand rather than from a distance like most biopics. A lot of the scenes are showcased from the first person perspective, and the camerawork can be shaky at times. But the experience is a rare and welcoming one.
At Eternity’s Gate is not just an examination of van Gogh’s final days; it is also a motivational message for those who are struggling artists. In the film, van Gogh is consistently badgered by everyone around him to give up on painting and that he will never become a successful painter. But he keeps on painting, despite what everyone else is telling him. Schnabel doesn’t quite hammer that message into the viewers’ heads, which is a good thing.
The Blu-ray release for At Eternity’s Gate only comes with three featurettes that total seven minutes, but there is also an accompanying audio commentary from Schnabel and co-writer/co-editor Louise Kugelberg. The feature presentation comes in a 1080p, 16x9 format with a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The transfer exquisitely captures the beautiful camerawork that Delhomme brought to the film, making those watching at home that their screen was bigger. The sound is a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, and it gives those who are fans of classical music the opportunity to be enveloped in Tatiana Lisovkaia’s fantastic score.
While At Eternity’s Gate is yet another Vincent van Gogh biopic, it breaks away from standard formatting, and for the better. Schnabel’s film is a gorgeous, near-perfect effort with a tremendous performance by Dafoe.