by Joe Hammerschmidt
Plenty a film gets lost at the end of year rush to hit Academy voters and upscale audiences, the results always varying based on whether the product is worthy of attention on either ground. As I write this, Julian Schnabel’s latest film At Eternity’s Gate just earned a Golden Globe nomination on merits of the acting chops of its leading star, the ever-versatile Willem Dafoe. Yet my natural sense of pessimism turns its head if I were to consider its Oscar chances. Dafoe’s portrayal of Vincent van Gogh may have caused my head to spin multiple times, yet how Schnabel’s vision appears on the screen may have left me a little too lost in its own swirling intimacy. A deeply personal verse on a legendary artist of his time, given a rather messy treatment that struggles to leave any form of an impression past the theater door.
Schnabel is no stranger to deeply prophetic biopics, his 2007 epic The Diving Bell and the Butterfly handled the physical and emotional struggles for French writer Jean-Dominique Bauby following a near life-threatening stroke, and particularly the need to cope against mere tragedy. Eternity, the name taken from one of Vincent’s more iconic canvasses, is far more intimate, as it isn’t really a romantic drama, more of singular heroic figure coping with the inner demons plaguing his mind, and affecting his artistic process. van Gogh was not long for this earth, having died upon the weight of his own mentally fractured ego at age 37. In his final months, he had reached what many art scholars would consider his most fervent period, connecting most with nature, expanding one’s meaning of the outside world. And for dear Vincent, it was likely the only escape from overwhelming anguish, his justification for self-imposed isolation, and often enough his muse for just living.
Schnabel opts to set his specific focus on the time van Gogh spends on the southern end of France, in the quiet country village of Arles. Desperate for a break from any unneeded stimuli in the big city, he takes the natural beauty to heart, while simultaneously unloading his madness onto what immediately evolve into his finest masterworks. Through the convincing of close allies, his overly loyal brother Theo (Rupert Friend), the concernable Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), and the persistent to help Dr. Gachet (Mathieu Amalric), Monsieur van Gogh is essentially gripping with reality, ever so eloquently. I speak with a gentle seriousness when the film’s dialogue understandably approached a delicately conversational tone, even with Vincent slipping further into that delirium seen in many a self-portrait.
The film often separates into two sharply contrasting categories, those moments led by words, and those led by body language. Sadly, there’s really not much of an impactful compromise between the two, they do not merge as much as they dodge each other. That being said, the separate sides are all too compelling. Dafoe feels most cozy in Vincent’s shoes, particularly when his physicality hits every possible benchmark; dancing, climbing, often screaming. Kudos to DoP Benoît Delhomme (The Theory of Everything) for taking a mostly handheld approach, often standing over Dafoe’s shoulder to mimic the sensation of being a figurative third wheel, and making use of his experience as a painter by trade to deliver an inviting first-person window.
Schnabel shows a certain passion for his subject, not just directing, but sourcing his script (co-written with Jean-Claude Carrière and Louise Kugelberg) from the same emotional beats found in many of Vincent’s own correspondence back to brother Theo, and also co-editing the work (also alongside Kugelberg) together in a mode endearing yet still really difficult to follow. The film’s pacing may not reward even the most patient or the most knowledgeable viewer. Even if one’s versed in all of van Gogh’s history, it may not all be absorbed directly. As ashamed as this may be to admit, the man’s plight was certainly a convincing one, yet by the time he nears the final knell for his mortality, I did lose interest and kept wondering just how much more it could be milked for its worth. Artistic beauty could only go so far until its welcome is overreached.
From Vincent’s perspective, his welcome wasn’t entirely overstayed. Schnabel rather exhausts one’s own view of the artist to where the journey could’ve been cut short by 20 minutes, and the same effect would’ve been reached with more brevity, and preferably with more of Isaac’s Gauguin, who is rather an underused utility character. I personally would’ve loved an increased back-and-forth, perhaps a bitter rivalry tale between the two. Bottom line: had it moved far quicker, At Eternity’s Gate would’ve had a possible contention into my top 25 rankings this year, in no small part due to Dafoe’s commitment to the figure.
There shan’t be a doubt toward whether his attention to detail as far as character actors go has faded with age. He’s as strong, as loud, as panged, and/or as melancholy as ever; take your pick. And he’s easily the best of what Schnabel managed to get correct with what won’t be the definitive portrayal of van Gogh, nor far from the last if current cinematic trends are on the button. He just happens to be one of the better manifestations of the troubled artist in recent memory. And when the lead character can make an aim for the roses without getting thorned, at least before an invisible version returns to haunt his work, that may just be enough for me. (C+)
At Eternity’s Gate opens in Seattle this weekend; limited engagement at SIFF Cinema Uptown; rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some mature thematic material; 111 minutes.