At Eternity’s Gate

Review by Hannah Woodhead @goodjobliz

Directed by

Julian Schnabel

Starring

Oscar Isaac Rupert Friend Willem Dafoe

Anticipation.

Dafoe feels like a superb casting choice.

Enjoyment.

Mind you don’t get motion sickness from that flying camera...

In Retrospect.

Clumsy and tiresome, playing into outdated ideas about mental health.

Despite a fine turn from Willem Dafoe, Julian Schnabel’s Vincent van Gogh biopic is a messy affair.

As one of the most famous painters in the history of Western art, it’s no surprise that Vincent van Gogh has fascinated filmmakers for decades. No less than seven films inspired by his life exist, and Julian Schnabel’s wispy new biopic makes number eight.

Regardless of how you feel about van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ or ‘Starry Night’, his cinematic appeal is easy to understand: a figure plagued by mental illness and poverty, he took his own life at the age of 37, and did not achieve success until after his death. There are few things that filmmakers like more than a solid tragedy.

Schnabel has form for directing biopics about artists, having made his directorial debut back with Basquiat, and as he did with Jeffrey Wright in 1996, in At Eternity’s Gate he benefits from having a perfectly-cast leading man. Capturing van Gogh in the final years of his life, spent in relative isolation in the South of France, Willem Dafoe possess the gravitas and wild-eyed intensity necessary to frame his subject, combined with a striking ability to capture immense melancholy.

Yet for all the strength of Dafoe’s performance, the film itself is a technical mess. Jostling, disorientating camerawork and scattershot editing feels like an overt and fairly tired metaphor for van Gogh’s mental instability, and the painter’s dark side (including his alcoholism, treatment of women and ill-temperament) seem all but glossed-over to pedal the problematic ‘artist as tortured genius’ narrative.

This, combined with Schnabel’s strange choice to change historical facts to better serve the tragic story, do a disservice to not only van Gogh, but his supportive brother Theo (played by Rupert Friend). There’s no doubting van Gogh’s immeasurable artistic talent or legacy, but At Eternity’s Gate feels too heavy-handed and self-conscious to really do the man himself justice.

Published 26 Mar 2019

Tags: Julian Schnabel Vincent Van Gogh Willem Dafoe

Anticipation.

Dafoe feels like a superb casting choice.

Enjoyment.

Mind you don’t get motion sickness from that flying camera...

In Retrospect.

Clumsy and tiresome, playing into outdated ideas about mental health.

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