“At Eternity’s Gate”: Van Gogh Through a Painter’s Eyes

December 17, 2018 § Leave a comment

Willem Dafoe in “At Eternity’s Gate”

Has any painter been the subject of more films than Vincent Van Gogh? Since “Lust for Life” started things off in 1956, we’ve seen “Vincent and Theo,” (1990), “Van Gogh” (1991) and “Loving Vincent” (2017), as well as various documentaries. On the heels of those films, it might seem that Julian Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate” would have little to add. After all, aren’t the facts of Van Gogh’s final years in Arles and Auvers well known?

Yes and no. All the well-known highs and lows of the previous films are presented. Van Gogh’s incredible productivity in Arles–187 paintings in fifteen months, a rate of 2 1/2 per day–was all the more remarkable given how sick he was, both physically and mentally. We see his relationships with his brother, Theo; his friendship with Gauguin; his poverty; his hospital stints; his severed ear; and later, in Auvers, his death at 37.

What’s new is the inclusion of two recent findings. The first is the theory (put forth in the 2011 biography Van Gogh: A Life that Van Gogh’s shooting was not a suicide but the work, accidental or not, of a local gun-toting teenager. Given the oblique angle of the bullet entry, Van Gogh’s lack of access to firearms and the fact that people who shoot themselves don’t opt for the abdomen, it’s amazing that suicide was the accepted cause of death for over a century, and Schnabel’s film puts a convincing end to it. The second new element is a large collection of drawings Van Gogh supposed did in a blank book given to him by his Arles landlady, Mme. Ginoux. According to the film, the book went undiscovered until 2016, a fantastic development that Schnabel accepts as fact. Nevertheless, the Van Gogh Museum and many scholars think the drawings are fake.

Apart from these biographical additions, “At Eternity’s Gate” sets itself apart by showing Van Gogh’s subjects through his eyes–or at least Schnabel’s. He shows the sunflowers, olive groves, haystacks and limestone cliffs of Arles as Van Gogh saw them, rather than thickly painted abstractions. In the best scene, we see Schnabel’s hand painting Van Gogh’s boots, rapidly transforming a series of jagged lines into a masterpiece. Though Van Gogh was a contemporary of the Impressionists, Schnabel makes clear that he was never one of them. Instead, he seems to have been the world’s first action painter. As Van Gogh puts it, “Maybe I’m a painter for people who haven’t been born yet.”

“At Eternity’s Gate” has its downside. The fact that Willem Dafoe, now 63, is far too old for the role is a problem, as is Schnabel’s annoying use of blurred shots, off-kilter angles, double images and repeated dialog to underscore the painter’s deteriorating mental state. But the scenes of Van Gogh roaming through fields and climbing cliffs in search of subject matter are as beautiful and indelible as the paintings themselves, and reason enough to see the film.

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