Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) cannot find an audience for his paintings in Paris. Forced by an impatient bar owner to remove all his works, Vincent has hit a creative impasse. Supported by his faithful brother Theo (Rupert Friend), he approaches forthright French painter Paul Cezanne (Oscar Isaacs), who turns out to be a kindred spirit. Cezanne suggests Vincent head south in search of “a better light” for his paintings. Arriving in Arles, Vincent does indeed find the vivid colours that match his passion. However the misunderstanding that swirl around his brazen style follow him still, and forever threaten to close the ‘gates to eternity’ that Vincent so desperately wants to depict.
…delivers a poetic re-telling of the Dutch painter’s life and the seismic impact of his work.
In this latest recounting of the life of Vincent Van Gogh, Director Schnabel has delivered a poetic re-telling of the Dutch painter’s life and the seismic impact of his work. Eschewing a strictly linear narrative, ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ instead employs every device possible to recount both the blossoming and disintegration of Van Gogh’s talent. Less frantic than ‘Lust for Life’ with Kirk Douglas, more lyrical than the diaristic style of ‘Vincent and Theo’, Schnabel’s camera fidgets and recomposes itself in time with Vincent’s temperament. Later blurring the bottom half of the screen, we get to experience Vincent’s deteriorating eyesight and audibly blurred recollection of the events that map his fragile state. That said, whilst these devices are used to underscore, Schnabel’s also wisely discards them when their narrative purpose is spent.
Surrounded by a solid yet unshowy ensemble of acting familiars (Emmanuelle Seigneur, Mads Mikkelsen and Mathieu Amalric), Willem’s Dafoe’s Vincent is a man caught out of time, lost in the thrall of a consuming dialogue with nature. In a subtle escalation that never leans too hard on mania, Dafoe judges Van Gogh perfectly. Cast opposite him, Oscar Isaacs’s Gaugin is a similarly note-perfect piece of casting. Avoiding the previous Rasputin-like depictions of the idealistic painter, he confidently counterpoints Dafoe’s intensity without ever shouting for attention.
Closing with an assemblage of more conventional scenes, ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ surprises by saving its best for last. In a fascinating exchange between Vincent and with Mads Mikkelsen’s doubtful priest, both Vincent’s quest and later significance are brought into sharp relief in a beautifully woven display of subtextual dialogue. So, whilst it might feel like there are almost as many Vincent Van Gogh movies as there are paintings, this is one re-telling that beautifully judges both its events and characters without any unnecessary emotion. Believe the hype, trust the casting and be transported in what amounts to a highly accessible depiction of a life stroked by passion.