Film Review – At Eternity’s Gate

At Eternity’s Gate is the brilliant new film by Julian Schnabel, looking at the final years of artist Vincent Van Gogh in 19th century France.

Vincent Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) arrives in cosmopolitan Paris with his devoted brother, art dealer Theo (Rupert Friend) where  they meet fellow aspiring artists including Paul Gaughin (Oscar Isaac). Enthusiastically exchanging ideas about  art, aesthetics and life with Gaughin, Vincent decides to head out to Arles, in the South of France in order to pursue his dreams as an artist. Undertaking the arduous journey by foot,  he quickly becomes immersed in solitary field trips with his heavy easel upon his back, darting through the lush, barren landscape.  Concerned about the welfare of his vulnerable brother, Theo calls upon Gaughin to keep Vincent company, reuniting with him on a field trip. But cracks soon start to appear  between the opinionated Gaughin and the eccentric, brittle Van Gogh, and when the former receives acclaim and some lucrative commissions he soon disappears, leaving a visibly distressed Van Gogh to find his own way in the World.

Cruelly shunned and ridiculed by the narrow minded villagers, he becomes increasingly isolated and frustrated in his solitary cell lined with oil paintings, but remains forever hopeful of making his mark on the art scene. Cutting his ear off for Gaughin to show his loyalty, Vincent is referred to a sanitarium, where he is put in a straight jacket and a regimented routine with fellow mental health patients. Painting has become his only refuge from the harsh realities of life, and it becomes the only thing he knows after failed attempts as a Minister and art dealer. Thanks to the unwavering love and support of Theo, his brother and closest friend, he receives some recognition from art dealers, and Theo provides a crucial financial/emotional lifeline that would otherwise elude him. Mocked for his efforts by ignorant schoolchildren, the local women around him cannot hide their disdain and revulsion, including ‘The Women of Arles’ /Madame Ginoux (both played by Emmanuelle Seigner).  The relentless combination of poverty, alcohol, insomnia, and solitary hours toiling away at his  easel with little or no recognition inevitably contributes to Vincent’s severe mental breakdown and incarceration at the asylum of Saint-Remy-De-Provence. Locked away and stripped of his dignity and liberty, The Priest (Mads Mikkelsen) acts as Vincent’s reluctant custodian, expressing his concern at Vincent’s state of mind and artistry through the stark, bold, swirling imagery produced on canvas.

Mysteriously dying by gunshot wound at the premature age of 37 in 1890 , Vincent manages to sell one painting during his short, tragic life (for $1000). A devastated Theo becomes the custodian of his legacy (but tragically dies in 1891 leaving a 1 year old son, Vincent Willem) with Vincent becoming forever immortalised as the ‘tortured genius’, who suffered for his art.

Shot over 38 days in the places Van Gogh lived in his final years (Arles, Bouches-du-Rhone and Auvers-sur-Oise), Director Julian Schnabel cleverly  incorporates jaunty camera angles, blurred edges and low level shots against the vibrant landscape, capturing Van Gogh’s distorted World. It is profoundly sad and unfair that Van Gogh didn’t see the impact of his artistry upon the global stage (with his art work amassing more than $1 billion) but Dafoe is an inspiring choice for the role of Van Gogh, and is very moving as the philosophical and misunderstood Van Gogh who refuses to compromise in the face of poverty and alienation. At Eternity’s Gate is an excellent testimony to Van Gogh’s resilience.

Biography, Drama | UK, 2018 | 12A | 29th March 2019 (UK) | Curzon Artificial Eye | Dir. Julian Schnabel | Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric


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