Director Julian Schnabel attempts to make the audience feel what it must have been like to be the artist.
Most film bios try to re-enact part or parts of a person’s life.
“At Eternity’s Gate” does, too, as it depicts the last years of the great painter Vincent Van Gogh.
But director Julian Schnabel, an artist himself, tries something different. Rather than just show Van Gogh going through various experiences, Schnabel attempts to make the audience feel what it must have been like to be the artist.
Whether through jerky hand-held camera shots from Van Gogh’s point of view or extreme close-ups of Willem Dafoe (who plays the Dutch artist), or the repetition of dialogue as it reverberates in Van Gogh’s mind, the director tries to put us in his head so we can experience the dizzying intensity that was the artist’s blessing and curse as he worked in Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise, France.
It’s an admirable, ambitious effort, with mixed results. The techniques help give us a better impression of Van Gogh’s confused, feverish state of mind, but rather than bringing us closer to the subject, they keep us at an emotional distance. Schnabel’s approach seems almost scientific, a cinematic surgeon’s attempt to dig into the mind, without capturing the true feelings of passion and awe Van Gogh expresses whenever talking about (or painting) beauty, nature, life.
Dafoe’s performance has a similar effect. He plays a man with an uncompromising, unique vision and a compulsive need to share that vision through his art. The way Van Gogh throws himself at life, and into his work, has left him teetering on the edge of sanity – the idea being that to leave yourself that open, that vulnerable, to the full force of life is a dangerous enterprise.
Dafoe captures all of this, but at the same time there seems something missing. Intellectually, we can process all of this, and appreciate it. We can understand why Van Gogh was ahead of his time, and suffered for it. But we’re never drawn into the character of Van Gogh, or even into the world that so clearly moves him, to be moved ourselves.
Try as he might to make us identify with Van Gogh, Schnabel fails to make us feel the artist’s passion. We appreciate it, sure. But we don’t feel it.
The best scenes involve Van Gogh’s interactions with others: his devoted brother, Theo (Rupert Friend); his opinionated friend, fellow artist Gaughan (Oscar Isaac); a priest (Mads Mikkelsen). Their reactions to the troubled artist are much more compelling than the artist’s internal struggles.
Maybe a more conventional film would have worked better as a portrait of this most unconventional man.