Film Festival review: At Eternity’s Gate

The last two years of Vincent van Gogh’s life are well-mined by artists drawn to the exploration of madness and passion in art, but Willem Dafoe can’t be outdone in his portrait of the painter in the new film At Eternity’s Gate.

Oct 18, 2018, updated Oct 18, 2018

This latest cinematic biopic is by artist/writer/director Julian Schnabel (Basquiat, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), and follows previous van Gogh ode Loving Vincent, which screened during last year’s Adelaide Film Festival. Although the two films both work on the motto that the best way to make a film about an artist is to make an artistic film, they are told in vastly different ways.

Loving Vincent literally brought van Gogh’s paintings to life and gave us an animated (through oils) plot-invested film-noir examining the mystery surrounding the artist’s death, whereas this year’s Adelaide Film Festival offering seems to eradicate plot almost entirely in place of a studied character sketch.

Willem Dafoe cannot be outdone in his portrait of the painter. He is gentle and serious and wanting, traits portrayed in both the eyes and the voice, and he gives a new humanity to the madman we think we all know, thus presenting a painfully believable case of (presumably) bipolar disorder. True, there is much to lament on behalf of van Gogh but in Dafoe’s hands, there is much that is enviable, too.

Schnable has said the film is about what it is to be an artist, and with this in mind it is easy to forgive its capacity to skew the truth in order to give us a containable narrative. There are condensed secondary characters (Gabby, as receiver of the famed severed ear, is also, in this film, the maid of the hotel where van Gogh lives, not the maid of a brothel he frequents), and the mystery surrounding van Gogh’s death is solved in a decisive naughty-village-boy-shot-him scene rather than possible suicide.

One can get caught up in these heavily debated bits of trivia but this is clearly a film you are supposed to see and feel, not dissect.

Much should be applauded in the artistry of At Eternity’s Gate, most notably the cinematography (Benoît Delhomme, of The Theory of Everything).

Numerous lengthy scenes of van Gogh walking through fields with an easel strapped to his back are what this film will be remembered for, and the lighting, the sunlight on the tips of trees, in a patch of grass at his feet, turning dirty-blond to vermillion.

The lighting works brilliantly as a mirror to his paintings. Not since Lars von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia have I seen such a stunningly visual film.

At Eternity’s Gate is screening again at 1.30pm this Saturday at GU Film House as part of the Adelaide Film Festival. See more Adelaide Film Festival stories, reviews and photo galleries here.

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