What image does Vincent Van Gogh invoke in you? Do you dance to the moving horizon of his ‘Starry Night,’ or do you get overwhelmed with the story of his bloody ear? Maybe your answer lies somewhere between these two images. Whatever may be the case, one thing we can all agree upon is that Van Gogh remains a very contentious figure of our time. Julian Schnabel’s 2018 ‘At Eternity’s Gate‘ is a biographical drama about the life of the famous post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh. Although Julian is not interested in instilling new images of the troubled painter, unlike any other biographical tribute, his film becomes a vessel to free Van Gogh from any preconceived notions.
Being a celebrated painter himself, Julian liberates the sensibilities of Vincent Van Gogh during his heightened periods of creative pursuit. Schnabel’s intimate work does not focus on any particular experience of the painter’s life. Instead, he zooms the camera onto how it felt to be him. The film’s color palette presents pure visual splendor and powerful imagery to depict what Vincent was seeing or feeling when he painted. Benoit Delhomme’s cinematography is fluid and thoroughly organic here. At times, the camera becomes the subject itself, and we see how this gifted artist felt at home and at peace when out in nature.
The film shares a fast and loose relationship with specific facts. Willem Dafoe’s portrayal of Van Gogh is not only praiseworthy, but it’s also one of his strongest performances. However, that did not stop many from noticing the age difference between the performer and his subject. Vincent was a quarter-century younger than Dafoe when he died, but the biggest concern among many critics was the ending of the film itself, but we may come back to it later.
In one scene, Vincent says to the priest (Mads Mikkelsen) who is there to evaluate his mental state, ‘Perhaps God made me a painter for people who are not born yet but was that really the case? Many art critics believe that Vincent was a Post- Impressionist painter who was painting at the height of Post Impressionism. But for some reason, I was always deluded in the art world. Perhaps the reason lies in the mental erosion of the artist.
Often tormented by bouts of mania that was the bane of his life, ‘At Eternity’s Gate‘ focuses on the last few years of Van Gogh’s life. The film briefly sheds light on his relationship with fellow artist Paul Gaugin (Oscar Isaac) and his brother Theo (Rupert Friend) but never dwells further in it. It is apparent that Van Gogh suffered from something invisible and was the victim of periodic madness that kept him away from forming any relation with another human being. Julian asserts that Van Gogh was not your one-dimensional tortured artist. Julian seems to convey that it gets tough to find meaning and happiness in life, but Vincent knew who he was. Even in the bleakest moment of his life, he never lost sight of his happiness and purpose. He knew who he was and held onto it for his dear life.
‘I do not invite the picture. I find it in nature and I just have to free it,’ Vincent says at one point in the film. It is a very poetic understanding of nature, but Vincent applies the same knowledge to his paintings. In a way, the film, too, does not concentrate on creating another understanding of who Vincent was. It frees our already instilled perception of him. Julian is well aware, what we think of Van Gogh, a mad, tortured artist who did not see much happiness or peace. In one scene, when Vincent is wandering around the wilderness with his arm stretched out, soaking and breathing his surroundings, we understand this was his redemption. He was not your ‘Mad Artist.’ He was saner than any of us when he was painting. He freed nature in his art, and in turn, nature did the same for him.
Let us go back to one of the most extensive inaccuracies of the film, the ending. The film works around the theory that Van Gogh did not kill himself but was rather killed. Film’s ending enraged many of Van Gogh’s scholars, with them accusing Julian of playing with facts. The film’s ending does not matter, really, once you see it in the context of Julian’s understanding of art itself. The object of the film was never to be an autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh. It was to make viewers see what he saw, to make them feel how he felt, to express how he breathed the very air and absolved himself from the madness of the world.
Julian Schnabel does not romanticize the idea of the tortured artist; that may be the reason he hinted at Vincent being murdered. This blatant interpretation is Julian’s artistic freedom, making him a true impressionist in a much more authentic self. He too paints what he sees rather than showing what is generally seen or believed.
Film’s name is based on Vincent Van Gogh’s painting. A man sitting on a chair with his hand covering his face. It’s a painting of a lonely old man, full of despair. Vincent named it ‘Sorrowing Old Man; At Eternity’s Gate. He believed that despair opens our eyes to the wonders of the world and makes our senses much more acute than a person who knew nothing of pain. In scenes when Vincent is staring out at the vast landscape before him and gazing at the beautiful blue sky that accepts him, he is at eternity’s gate. He was much more at peace and liberated than we ever imagined him to be. Julian sees this, and through his film, he wants you to see it too.
At Eternity’s Gate is a 2018 Biographical Drama Film directed by Julian Schnabel. The film portrays Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh.