AT ETERNITY’S GATE – Review by Diane Carson

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At Eternity’s Gate offers Julian Schnabel’s response to van Gogh’s art. When he died in 1890 at 37 years of age, Vincent van Gogh left behind a collection of magnificent paintings and the chronicle of an enigmatic life still captivating and puzzling. Director and painter Julian Schnabel is one such person who tackles the elusive legend of van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate, Schnabel’s subjective response to van Gogh’s paintings.

Schnabel has emphasized that this is not a “forensic biography.” Instead, he explores “what it means to be an artist,” adding “this movie is an accumulation of scenes based on . . . van Gogh’s letters, common agreement about events in his life that parade as facts, hearsay, and scenes that are just plain invented.” Above all, Schnabel explains that the film comes directly out of his personal response to van Gogh’s paintings.

As a painter himself. Schnabel has crafted a unique, impressionistic interpretation of van Gogh’s creative impulse, even obsession that drove him to paint quickly, producing 75 works in 80 days, almost one a day, during a period late in his life. Vincent’s relationship with his devoted brother Theo result in some of the most deeply emotional, poignant scenes. Van Gogh’s friendship with Paul Gauguin offers a friendly debate about very different approaches to painting: van Gogh’s immersion in nature, Gauguin’s in his imagination.

Set primarily in Arles and Saint Remy, and shot on location there, the landscapes so important to van Gogh come alive as he walks, often hurriedly, through fields. The dominance of shaky, handheld, subjective camera shots takes some adjustment, but I found, once I settled in, I embraced Schnabel’s approach. At times, cinematographer Benoit Delhomme uses a diopter lens that makes the bottom of the composition blurry. These are always from van Gogh’s subjective perspective, suggesting reality versus Vincent’s unique vision. Tatiana Lisovskaya’s piano-based score by adds another interpretive commentary on the drama unfolding.

Though 63 playing 37, Willem Dafoe has an uncanny resemblance to van Gogh and delivers a superb performance. So too do Oscar Isaac as Gauguin, Rupert Friend as Theo, Mads Mikkelsen as a priest, and Emmanuelle Seigner as Madame Giroux. At Eternity’s Gate is a mesmerizing, meditative commentary on van Gogh and art. In English and some French with English subtitles.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.