It seems to me that the actual filmmaking in a movie should (not always, but often) mirror the setting in which the film takes place, especially if it’s a period piece. A good example of how not to shoot a movie is Michael Mann’s 2009 Depression-era gangster tale, Public Enemies, in which he inexplicably shot a movie set in the 1930s with HD video cameras, resulting in a weird, smeary TV esthetic for what should have been a more traditional and richly formal celluloid exercise.
I felt the same way watching Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate, which depicts the last, troubled years of the tormented artist Vincent Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe). Schnabel, whose previous films include the masterful Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, keeps his camera constantly moving in At Eternity’s Gate — whipping between characters, swooping down on them, almost literally going up their noses — to the point of distraction. I was always aware that the camera was there, which is an odd and off-putting sensation for a film set in the late 1880s, before movie cameras were a thing.
Perhaps Schnabel wanted the camera to somehow become a metaphor for what he certainly perceives as Van Gogh’s disintegrating mind. At Eternity’s Gate is not a standard biopic — we’ve had a few of those already, including Lust for Life and Vincent and Theo. This one focuses only on those last few years before Van Gogh committed suicide at the age of 37 in 1890. Much has already been made of the fact that Dafoe, 63, is a quarter-century older than the man he’s portraying, but given how haggard and aged the artist looked in his own self-portraits, this is almost appropriate.
And make no mistake, Dafoe is tremendous in the role, torn between moments of peace and agonizing pain, passages of mental torture and spiritual bliss, sometimes within the same scene. While the exact nature of Van Gogh’s mental illness remains enigmatic, Schnabel uses other means to get inside the painter’s mind as well: shifting from color to black and white, overlapping or blurring the images, flipping back and forth in time. But his best effect is really just Dafoe’s eyes and unshaven, furrowed face, with which the actor projects so much of Van Gogh’s pain and inspiration.
The rest of the movie around him moves in fits and starts, divided between Van Gogh’s psychological episodes and long stretches of philosophical discussion. Most of the latter come courtesy of Van Gogh’s interactions with his beloved friend Paul Gauguin. Oscar Isaac is kind of miscast and a little too modern in the role, with their exchanges either mystifyingly high-minded or sounding like two buddies watching a football game (“I still think Monet is pretty good,” says Van Gogh offhandedly at the end of a heated chat about the Impressionists).
The second half of the movie details Van Gogh’s harrowing stay in an asylum at Saint-Remy and is marked by a long passage in which the artist has a deep discussion with the priest in charge of the facility (Mads Mikkelsen of Rogue One), who happens to intensely dislike the painter’s work. It’s a strange scene that stops the film dead before Van Gogh begins his final slide.
A painter himself, Schnabel clearly feels personally attached to the story and offers a kind of impressionistic view of Van Gogh’s life, instead of a straightforward one. But despite Dafoe’s best efforts, the movie keeps its distance — it’s as if Schnabel made this one truly and wholly for himself. The best parts of the film are when Van Gogh is painting (shooting in actual locations where he lived, like Aries or Auvers-sur-Oise, is one of the movie’s strengths) and we see the art take flight in front of our eyes. Although Van Gogh is in many ways the quintessential tortured artist, the moments when he is just painting — even if they’re not so painterly themselves — make the most lasting impression.
At Eternity’s Gate is out in theaters today (Friday, Nov. 16).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye