Walking in someone else’s shoes is usually just a turn of phrase. But in At Eternity’s Gate, cinematographer Benoît Delhomme merges abstract angles, light, and color into a first-person point of view that converges perfectly with Julian Schnabel’s story about the final years in van Gogh’s life.
The “enhanced reality” creates a perspective to drive a narrative that simultaneously unveils parts of Vincent van Gogh history and deepens the mystique around both the man and an artist.
It’s a biopic — deliberately held together by the thinnest of narrative threads — less interested in drawing conclusions as it is in recasting and re-imagine how to interpret what may already be known about its subject.
You may learn new facts about the man and mayhap rethink what you previously believed. This film is a deconstruction of the man, his mental instability in the period from which some of his (now) most famous works come. Rather than giving into the conventional belief that van Gogh was simply driven by “madness” At Eternity’s Gate presents a uniquely interesting story despite its flaws (or maybe because of them).
At Eternity’s Gate shouldn’t work. And for the first few minutes of watching Schnabel’s vision unfold at a crawling pace, I didn’t think it would. It took too long to dive into the real meat of the story. Then I began to realize every second of silence deepened the impact of the visual presentation of van Gogh’s thoughts and feelings in such a way it unravels a mystery you didn’t even know you wanted to understand.
The plot, driven by the van Gogh’s own words, ironically brings the abstract into focus even as it further blurs the edges by rooting itself in his ever-tumultuous relationship with the world at large with a striking vulnerability and insight.
Schnabel makes best use of Delhomme’s skills to pull you into the artist’s thoughts through a lens simulating how he may experience the world on and off his canvas. There are times when events may have been better served by some breathing room.
But the film never loses its way, despite occasionally lingering in certain existential moments too long, as it shares pivotal moments and relationship’s in his life.
Willem Dafoe’s Vincent van Gogh is a troubled creative with a deep love of nature and unsettled by the dark turns of his own mind. He assumes the mien of a (mentally ill) man tormented by his thoughts yet pushed to share his vision through art.
At times, it was extremely easy to forget you weren’t looking at the artist himself as Dafoe eerily embodied iconic self-portraits come to life. Although older than van Gogh, Dafoe’s age allowed for a silent commentary on mental illness and the toll his episodes took on his physical appearance in a way that resonates.
The fusion of Dafoe’s poignant performance and Schnabel’s direction trends toward a whole new interpretation of the man and his motivations. Drawing on letters from van Gogh to his brother Theo (Rupert Friend) to touchingly flesh out the unbreakable bond between the two.
At Eternity’s Gate then juxtaposes that relationship against his friendship with – and toxic dependence on – fellow artist Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac).
These moments of overt intellectual exposition between Gauguin and van Gogh are jarring notes beside the more delicate tone of the interment narrative voice-overs and interactions with his brother.
It all works to expose the frailness of his psyche and his utter inability to maintain outside a particular structure in a way that consistently drove the story forward.
At Eternity’s Gate is an inexplicably captivating, yet imperfect, biopic that takes you on a journey with van Gogh that stops just shy of sensory overload. Its story approach turns a film about some of the final years of Vincent van Gogh’s life into an immersive exploration of the man and his work.
CBS Films is now playing At Eternity’s Gate in select theaters nationwide.
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