Vincent Van Gogh worshipped the sunlight, and so does Julian Schnabel, the director and co-writer of the latest Van Gogh biopic, At Eternity’s Gate. In this movie, light itself—a domineering aspect of both paint and film—holds thematic weight as the medium of beauty and art, fleeting between object and subject; between the thick, smeared pigment of oils, and the mercurial wash and blend of celluloid.
Filmmakers have immortalized Van Gogh more times to count, with At Eternity’s Gate most recent predecessor, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s Loving Vincent (2017), saying more about cinema than about paint, reincarnating the streaks and coils of Van Gogh’s own artworks using motion. Posthumously tracing Vincent’s last days, the over 100 painters of Loving Vincent morphed the film in and out of artworks such as Starry Night over the Rhone, or Wheatfield with Crows, or any of his self-portraits, meriting movies as an extension of visual art—a moving painting, or a moving photograph— a reaffirmation that movies, some movies, all movies, are as capital-A-Art as they come. Loving Vincent started from paintings and talked about cinema. At Eternity’s Gate starts from cinema and talks about paintings. Here, we are in Julian Schnabel’s world, and cinema is again the form: the camera is handheld and subjective; solar flares obliterate the screen; colour grading deepens each frame. The substance is oil, brushes, and turpentine; it is fear, shame, and beauty.
Schnabel, a painter himself, is unafraid to show the beauty of light and colour, and his and Van Gogh’s overwhelming desire to capture it, in celluloid and in paint. The colours of At Eternity’s Gate are enormously, generously indulgent, such that each frame (when appropriate) bursts with splendour. At times, this extravagance goes so far as to wash the entire screen with yellow.
I distinctly remember two soaring moments in the film, but there must be countless more: (1) Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) is in a vibrant field. He runs across it. The sound of composer Tatiana Lisovkaia’s piano—the high treble—shimmers in quavers, and the camera shakes in that same ecstatic rhythm. There are luxurious colours: deep crimsons, cadmium yellows, burnt siennas. Moments later, as we would, as Schnabel has, Van Gogh sets his canvas onto the stand, and begins to capture it. (2) Using a newly carved bamboo pen, Van Gogh lines the slant of a horizon, and at the same time, we hear a high, unwavering note slide keenly along a violin string. In both these instants the picture and its music clasp together perfectly. It is breathtaking. There are many more moments like these, like a brilliant verite scene in which Van Gogh takes off his shoes. Schnabel’s heavy camera wanes shakily down to foot level, almost to the ground, and the endurance sport of the cameraman becomes the endurance sport of Van Gogh, as he bends, aching from the wind, to untie his threadbare laces.
Along with the high-strung immediacy of reactive camerawork, what the lens does equally as strikingly is peer, defiantly, intrusively, into faces. Extreme close-ups in At Eternity’s Gate may at first feel harshly intimate: on the big screen, each eye stretches half a metre wide, the lips canoes, the nose a coffin. Willem Dafoe’s gaping mouth, his hefty creases, his furrowed brows (his performance equal parts neurotic, introspective, and beguiled) appear heavy in flux as he confronts friends, foes, beauty, and illness. But when one sees something enlarged, or looks at something too closely, the parts separate themselves from the whole, and the whole is left incomprehensible. On a laptop screen, or a television, the effect may not be as immediate, but if you’re close enough to it, everything becomes sparse and unintelligible. On the landscape of a face, we forget that it is a face, and instead it becomes an abstraction or an instinct, and, shedding practical value, forces us to confront feeling. Such as with the excessive repetition of words, or the act of looking at something for too long, it gains new meaning as it loses definition. These momentary descents into abstraction are emblematic of the film, which confronts Van Gogh’s coalesced mixture of fear and desire for death, prosperity, and eternity—the unquantifiable and the unarticulated.
It might be time here, at the end of the review, to stop gushing and say what the film is about. When talking about Shakespeare, Vincent tells Madame Ginoux (the subject of the painting L’Arlésienne): “Some of the lines aren’t very clear, but I like that.” But here, the film’s excess of ambiguity (or incomprehensibility, in less generous terms) harms it. At Eternity’s Gate’s narrative is stitched roughly together in glimpses, from real-life hearsay, letters, and paintings, and the uncertainty of these efforts diffuses the immediacy of the movie’s style. The film feels as if it is strung together with a series of ellipses: Van Gogh in a field… Van Gogh in Paris… Van Gogh in Arles… Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise… Van Gogh in an insane asylum…. The narrative itself becomes aimless, unanchored, floating. With no driving impetus, some parts of the near two-hour runtime may seem too slow, or too long. There are gaps present where chunks of history are missing, and so there lingers throughout an unwavering disclaimer: there is no way to know what really happened. Is this disclaimer necessary? I don’t think so—no biographical film can perfectly capture its subject, and an inability to do so – to a certain extent – exists within all realms of artistic license. All a film can promise is to do its best to give some representation and to take it somewhere unique. Which is what At Eternity’s Gate does. Astoundingly.
At Eternity’s Gate is in Australian cinemas from 14 February.
Valerie Ng is a sort of writer based in mostly Melbourne, studying something completely unrelated to film. She’s also a managing editor for Rough Cut and her words appear very sporadically on other sites and on @valerieing.