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"At Eternity’s Gate" Review: A Portrait of a Soul

Graduate of History and Philosophy specialized in Aesthetics, from Romania.

This is a subtle, well-crafted, at times entirely superb look at the last years of the renowned post-impressionist painter, Vincent van Gogh. The movie stretches throughout its entirety on a carefully crafted canvas of pure emotion. Through this unique, visual type of dialogue, Julian Schnabel offers us an exploration of a tormented soul. We see a movie made by a painter, and although it's not for the first of its kind, it may very well be the most aesthetically ambitious one. All paintings must be done fast, says at one point our titular character. He is right, and he is revolutionary. He is a painter with a soul anachronistically placed, with a technique deemed ugly by his contemporaries, but with an eye equipped to penetrate not shapes, but shadows; an eye meant to observe not a mundane landscape, but how nature itself can communicate with eternity.

Arles was a very prolific period in terms of painting for van Gogh. Here he produced a good portion of his now recognized masterpieces. It is also the setting of his mental decadence, of his slip into madness.

I feel God is nature and nature is beauty.

We meet Vincent in an emotionally impoverished state. He finds solace in observing and painting landscapes and comes to the main realization that these scenes are not of an objective, retinal value. His existence is marked by this conflict, he wants to belong to the current creed, to be treated as a painter in the same manner as his fellow contemporaries, and at the same time, he bears a Promethean burden. His eyes are cursed not to see but to expand and suspend reality. Vincent ponders the philosophical quality of eternity; he distances and gets into conflict with his community which leads to the arrival of Gauguin into Arles. They do not know it, but van Gogh is already at the zenith of his artistic evolution. Their relationship quickly begins to deteriorate due to conflicting views on the nature of art and Gauguin leaves Arles. This once again sparks Vincent’s fall into madness and he cuts his ear offering it to a prostitute to give Gauguin. After being released from hospitalization, he is denied permission from the now hostile Arles. His last months are spent drawing and searching for the same infinity.

The plot and narrative of the movie fall on the slim side, as this movie is not thought of as a story but more like an exploration of a painter’s soul. Julian Schnabel’s partnership with Benoît Delhomme is extremely prolific. It does help that the director is also a painter, this is ultimately a movie made by an artist about another artist. Schnabel understands that portraits played a pivotal role in van Gogh’s artistic formation. Taking a look at Delhomme’s framing it’s apparent to us that each scene has a scope beyond itself, beyond the simple narrative of the story. It’s there to enforce the painting upon us. Most of the scenes involving the supporting cast are framed so that they resemble a still portrait. They speak directly to the camera in the same manner that the portrait fixes its audience. Van Gogh’s portraits are vibrant, his use of color is unparalleled. If his portraits are contrasting, stark, this is because his subjects borrowed color from their surroundings. His portraits, like his landscapes, are cathartic releases. By borrowing color from their setting his characters become as much part of the world as the world is part of them.

I wanted so much to share what I see. Now I just think about my relationship to eternity.

Stanley Kubrick may very well be the master at referencing paintings in his scenes. Barry Lyndon (1975) is the cinematic manifestation of French neo-classicism. We are asked to take a step back and analyze, internalize the scene. Schnabel takes a different approach. Neo-classicists capture a scene in the same manner in which you would expect a still life to be captured. There is no much difference between a duke or a count and a Flemish or Dutch vessel. We see Julian Schnabel takes a detour from this (not in every scene, in some, he does indulge himself in the same mirroring) cerebral representation and assumes that we are somewhat familiar with van Gogh’s work. We are here to witness their inception. We see them as they were present in that reality.

Through these shots, we get to understand the first step in any act of creation, the divine or demonic inspiration. For van Gogh, the purpose of art is to cease the functions of reasoning, of thinking. Like Edgar Allan Poe before him, he sometimes hates the idea of regaining his health. Vincent’s domain of existence is not in our sight, but high on the plains of Parnassus, his visions are that of an ascetic and they are harvested through the pain. Delhomme’s cinematography is inspired in transmitting this message. He organically uses color and camera movement, with shots ranging from wide to single-person portraits. We see different filters applied, ranging from a feverish, delirious yellow, to a total absence, to the underlying dichotomic blocks of black and white. Do not expect to find a compelling story here as this is not the goal of the movie. Schnabel’s entire cinematic language revolves around color, framing, and movement. Every scene comprised of dialogue is shot and constructed in the same manner as a portrait. Unlike the Dutch, Flemish, neo-classical, and impressionist painters, Vincent will capture not what he sees in the manner he saw it, but he will try to capture the underlying mystery conveyed in nature.

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I am my paintings.

The point of view is always subjective, the camera is handheld to further deepen the visceral feeling of the scene. Color is emotion and we experience through our body. In this visceral manifestation of beauty, we are told we can attain eternity. We see a shot with Willem Dafoe pouring dirt over his head, which is highly evoking. He is overwhelmed by the beauty, by his new-found sense of freedom. He does an impressive job of conveying this particular moment. He infuses the scene with pure emotion. Dafoe not only dispatches on an ocean of sensibility to the character, but he also morphs it something entirely humane. Willem Dafoe offers us an Oscar-worthy performance and perhaps the most accurate and heartful portrayal of Vincent van Gogh to date. Apart from Gauguin and his brother Theo, the rest of the supporting cast is mainly there to confront our protagonist’s ideas and beliefs. The result is that at times the movie feels more like a documentary. If you can get past this aspect than this movie can be more than a pleasant surprise. Driven forward by a masterful performance from Dafoe, Schnabel’s oeuvre of cinematic paintings never feels anything but honest and truthful to its subject matter.

Rating 4/5

© 2020 Claudiu Ursu


Claudiu Ursu (author) from Cluj-Napoca, Romania on August 16, 2020:

Thank you very much!

Cristiana on August 16, 2020:

A tasteful review, as you jave accustomed us.

Claudiu Ursu (author) from Cluj-Napoca, Romania on May 11, 2020:

Thank you! He is indeed an incredible actor!

Matt Brown from Pasadena on May 11, 2020:

An excellent review. I love dafoe

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