Monday, December 17, 2018
AT ETERNITY’S GATE.
Directed and written by Julian Schnabel. Starring Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh.
The sunflowers are withered.
It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with this poetically sensitive depiction of the last three years in the life of the Dutch painter, Vincent Van Gogh. These were years spent in around Arles, years of a chaotic chain of circumstances—corrosive relations with Paul Gauguin, pleas of help to brother Theo, incarcerations in hospitals and asylums—that miraculously produced the masterpieces we now know and celebrate. AT ETERNITY’S GATE, I must admit, surely benefits from lushly photographed landscapes and an outstanding performance marked by Willem Dafoe’s trademark intensity. It’s just... well, I’m probably the one at fault, for expecting a more insightful and interpretive conjoining of image and music from painter-filmmaker Julian Schnabel.
Instead, Schnabel trots out the Usual Suspects about the troubled painter’s mental and physical turmoil—the visions, the erratic emotional temper, the restlessness that damaged friendships and home life, the stabbing painterly “performances” at the easy... And he serves them up with pertinent, brief excerpts from the painter’s letters. But it lacks context for all these things. The painter’s words, about his God and about his work, about his fellow painters, are shorn of the needed nuances of time and circumstance that they deserve. Please note: Van Gogh was an extremely gifted and expressive writer, as measured and steady in his letters as he was impulsive and reckless in his behavior. But eviscerated and clipped as are his words here, his thoughts seem merely artificial and cliched. He is ill-served here. Consult his letters. See for yourself.
And there are those annoying, wordless, interpolated passages where Schnabel’s camera follows Van Gogh on his interminable ramblings across the countryside. We see his feet, we see his face limned against the sky, we see through his eyes the landscape ahead... Walking, always walking. On and on. A lot of screen time might have been better served than this preoccupation with walking, climbing, scrambling. Worse, during these walking sequences, there’s an annoying solo piano on the soundtrack, lamely hammering away at repeated chords, likewise, on and on...
But there is a final irony here—one that I assume is intended by director Schnabel. He defies our expectations of filling the screen with Vincent’s signature images of blazing-yellow sunflowers. Instead, all we get is a field full of desiccated blooms and stalks, pitiful brown remnants of a once proud glory. But that is fine. That is fine with me. This bravely, rudely works against our expectations. It’s the sort of debunking touch that we had found and welcomed so frequently in an earlier Van Gogh biopic, one that I much prefer—Vincent and Theo, by Robert Altman.