Julian Schnabel’s van Gogh biopic is the most insightful yet

Film Review | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

At Eternity’s Gate
RPL Film Theatre

February 22–23

There’s no shortage of Vincent van Gogh biopics. Just last year saw the gorgeous but weakly written animation Loving Vincent, but before that is a long history including Robert Altman’s 1991 Vincent and Theo and the Kirk Douglas-led Lust for Life (1956). At Eternity’s Gate takes a different approach than those classics, focusing on Vincent’s drive rather than his mental health. Yes, the signposts to tragedy are all there but the film makes an effort to keep van Gogh’s well-covered  miseries from hogging the spotlight.

At Eternity’s Gate depicts van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) as a visionary ahead of his time. This isn’t necessarily a good thing when you’re a starving artist with a unique vision in the late 19th century when impressionism is all the rage. Taking advice from fellow painter Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), Van Gogh trades the increasingly toxic Parisian scene for the tranquility of Arles in the South of France. He doesn’t fit in there either, but the period is particularly prolific despite constant conflict with town dwellers. These are the years Van Gogh produced “Bedroom in Arles”, “The Night Café”, and a number of self-portraits that hang in various world-class museums. So there’s that.

Soon, quarrels with friends and neighbors — and a “break-up” with Gauguin — send van Gogh spiraling downward. In the end, utter loneliness plays a bigger role in his fate than any other factor, including mental unrest.

Director Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) depicts Van Gogh as a delicate soul who’s easily rattled. Schnabel, who became famous as a painter and knows a thing or two about artists, captures the drive that kept Van Gogh going despite public scorn and  peer indifference. The filmmaker’s regard for his subject manifests throughout, to the point of keeping the self-mutilation bit off-screen — which is fine, since the ear thing has become an obnoxious cliché.

He’s 25 years older than van Gogh when he died, but Willem Dafoe is excellent in At Eternity’s Gate — the perfect mix of helpless and mercurial. Less perfect is the casting of baby-faced Rupert Friend as Van Gogh’s barely younger brother, Theo. Schnabel brings back actors from previous films (Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric, Anne Consigny and others) in supporting roles, but it’s new collaborator Mads Mikkelsen who stands out as the priest who runs the asylum where Van Gogh is committed. Mikkelsen’s priest is compassionate, but he doesn’t think much of the artist’s work and in one inspired scene lets him know it. It’s a rare moment of levity in a film carrying a heavy heart.