AT ETERNITY’S GATE
France, UK, US, 2018, 111 minutes, Colour.
Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Matthiue Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Neils Arestrup, Anne Consigny, Amira Casar, Vincent Perez.
Directed by Julian Schnabel.
Vincent van Gogh on screen again.
Van Gogh must be the most popular artist to have feature films and documentaries made about him. Vincente Minnelli made Lust for Life in 1956 with Kirk Douglas in the role. Since then Robert Altman made Theo and Vincent, Paul Cox made a documentary with John Hurt reading Van Gough’s letters, Vincent, recently an animated film of van Gogh and his life and art, featuring the voice of actors who resembled the characters in his paintings, Loving Vincent.
Directed Julian Schnabel is an artist himself and also made a portrait of the American artist, Basquiat. Here he wants to take the audience inside the consciousness of the artist who, at one stage, tells us that his life was like standing at the edge of a field, looking out on its beauty, in the sunlight, at the edge of eternity.
Willem Dafoe is quite convincing as van Gogh, receiving an Oscar nomination for his performance. He looks weatherbeaten by age and his personal problems. He has a compulsion to paint even though the public response to his work is minimal, not selling a painting during his lifetime. He comes from a religious background in Holland, his father a minister, and supported financially by his loving brother, Theo (Rupert Friend). He has found the weather and light in Holland too trying and his friend and associate, Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) has advised him to move to the south of France. He does.
The director uses a great number of devices, a great deal of handheld camera, intense and long close-ups on particular characters during their dialogue, sweeps of camera that resemble brushstrokes, playing with the styles of light. For those who like their biographies of artists straightforward in narrative and traditional film styles, they will have to make quite an adjustment to the style of At Eternity’s Gate.
Most audiences are familiar with many of the aspects of van Gogh’s life and work. Fortunately, this film shows him not only at work, but walking through fields, immersed in the colour of the landscapes, the beauty of nature in sunlight, and then his working – with a strange interlude where he is painting the vast roots of trees and a school teacher with a group of children pass by, the children curious, playing up, disturbing the artist who rouses on them as they flee (and his later being asked whether he was cruel to children).
Then there are the questions of his mental state, his being institutionalised, the cutting off of his ear and its motivation (not visualised in this film), the experiences in the institution, sitting in cold baths and being hosed, communicating with the other inmates who are less able to cope with their situation than the artist is.
Particularly poignant and meaningful is a long conversation with the priest who has the task of deciding whether van Gogh should stay in the institution or be freed. The sequence is filmed quite straightforwardly, focusing on the two men and their conversation, the priest, a somewhat traditional 19th century French priest (played, surprisingly and sympathetically, by Mads Mikkelsen) who has a series of questions to put to the artist. van Gogh draws on his religious background, responding to the petition of the people of Arles that he never come back there, by likening himself to Jesus before Pilate, rejected by the people, accepted by Pilate. The artist sees himself as a Christ figure.
The film offers a strongly emotional experience, an identifying with the artist and his life, his traumas, his achievement, and the lack of recognition – although there is a fine scene where he paints the doctor (Mathieu Amalric) who gives him shelter and tends him after the episode with the young boys, the gun and his being wounded, his death.
Obviously, a must for those who love 19th century art, who love all art, and who want to know and appreciate more about artists.
1. The status of van Gogh as an artist, his life and reputation?
2. The cinema tradition of biographies and documentaries?
3. This film as supported by an artist with an artist’s experience and insights?
4. The cinematic style, the subjective experience of van Gogh? The handheld camera, the intense close-ups of characters, the gaze of van Gogh? Visual brushstrokes like the paintings? The contrast with realistic situations and interviews? The piano accompaniment, the musical score?
5. Audience knowledge of van Gogh, presuppositions about him and his art?
6. Willem Dafoe’s performance, Oscar nomination, Venice acting award? The international cast?
7. The title, van Gogh’s explanation of his being at a field, looking out at nature, looking at eternity, on the threshold?
8. Vincent in Holland, the background of his father as a minister, his knowledge of the Gospels, reading the text? His talent for painting? The exhibition, not being appreciated? His moods? The discussions with Gauguin and his affirmation of van Gogh? Recommending that he go south, to Provence?
9. Vincent in Arles, his life there, the accommodation, and the various personalities, Gaby and relationship? The meagre lifestyle? Theo and his visit, the bonds between them, the physical affection, Theo and his being a businessman, the financial support?
10. The paintings, the scenes of Vincent in nature, in the fields, the beauty of the sun, the light, with his equipment? The range of subjects – and the initial sequence of his painting boots, so dark? Some of his paintings being considered ugly by his contemporaries?
11. The episode with school children, the teacher, the children in the countryside, coming to watch Vincent painting, their being troublesome, his reaction and sending them away?
12. Vincent going into the institutions, the sequence of people and the vats, the water, their being hosed, his discussions with the military man? Mental conditions? His being able to talk about himself? His cutting of his ear – its not being shown visually, his explanation of his motives?
13. The interview with the priest, sympathetic, but his responsibilities about Vincent’s freedom, his considering the art ugly? The religious reflections? Vincent talking about Jesus before Pontius Pilate, the people against him, Vincent seeing him as innocent?
14. His leaving the institution, staying with the doctor, the doctor’s welcome, the doctor sitting for the portrait, their discussions?
15. The youngsters, the gun, the shooting, Vincent being wounded, struggling, his dying? The speculation about his death, some thinking that he
16. Vincent and his achievement, not during his lifetime? Subsequently?