Notes on “At Eternity’s Gate”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

It’s inevitable that Julian Schnabel’s movie about Van Gogh, “At Eternity’s Gate,” will be compared to Altman’s “Vincent and Theo.” Both pictures attempt to capture the ecstatically enervated aspects of Van Gogh’s art; they’re expressionistic takes on an expressionistic artist. But whereas I remember Altman’s picture as focusing on the conventional drama provided by Vincent’s relationship with his art-dealer brother, Schnabel approaches his subject as a graphic artist. His movie is a sort of icon of Van Gogh. It’s bold but also conventional; it hews to the painter’s reputation as a secular saint. Willem Dafoe seems to have been cast with the idea of evoking his Christ from Scorsese’s “Last Temptation.” His Van Gogh has the searching quality of that earlier role. Like Scorsese’s Christ he contemplates serenity, but, in this world at least, it remains elusive. Schnabel may be the most painterly major filmmaker working. His movies are often less concerned with plot than with tone and surface, and here, as in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” his scenes seem almost brushed in; they have a plein air bravura. There’s a liquid quality to the picture; it’s a tonal-textural reverie. (This may be the first representation of Van Gogh to frame the painter in Whitmanesque terms.) Unlike previous handlers of the Van Gogh story, Schnabel doesn’t try to overwhelm us with the bold colors of the French countryside. And perhaps because he wants us to understand Van Gogh’s art as a product of the artist’s private consciousness, he resists the temptation to recreate famous paintings; when he shows a sunflower, it’s a dead sunflower. Schnabel’s Arles is a scrubby, wild place, with unpredictable wind and lowering skies — a place where light is fleeting and dangerous things are possible. Like saints of old, Van Gogh trudges off to this quasi-wilderness to be alone with his perceptions, and perhaps confront his demons. Whereas Gaugin needs the remoteness of Tahiti to stake a claim to a personal vision, Van Gogh’s solitude is as internal as it is eternal; his vision is inescapable. It stalks him, drives him. In a sense the movie is about the loneliness of individual perception. Schnabel perhaps missteps when he has Van Gogh talk about painting for audiences of the future, but the sentiment plays into the Christ motif, and it’s hard to deny Schnabel this assertion once you’ve accepted the other parts of the proffered mythos. I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that Schnabel wants us to see Van Gogh as having sacrificed himself in order to awaken us to a new manner of seeing. It’s corny, but it works in context. It may also be true.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Art, Movies and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Notes on “At Eternity’s Gate”

  1. Will S. says:

    Reblogged this on Will S.' Sunny Side Blog and commented:
    Great review of a great movie. I really did feel, when I saw At Eternity’s Gate last year, that it helped give a bit of a glimpse inside Van Gogh’s mind, which is what I wish for most from art biopics, more than just a recreation of events as they unfolded.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s