At Eternity’s Gate – A Review

At Eternity’s Gate – D-S Original Movie Postcard

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★★★★★

Director Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, 2008) has with this film bought the audience a new perspective on the life of the artist Vincent van Gogh.  When I think of him I think of his “Sunflowers” and landscapes drenched in sunshine. Yellow is used throughout the movie as a motif reminding us constantly of Vincent’s passion for light. The film focuses on the final two years van Gogh’s life. During this time he was painting prodigiously, whilst suffering frequent debilitating bouts of mental illness.

The casting of Willem Dafoe, who won Best Actor for his performance at the 2018 Venice Film Festival, is inspired. He portrays the complex gamut of emotions experienced by the tortured artist so deftly, that the act of watching becomes an exercise in empathy. The confusion and sadness, the brief moments of joy are so powerful that your heart breaks for the artist driven to work despite the weight of the mental illness he carried. Dafoe’s expressive face, often seen in close up, drew me in to van Gogh’s emotionally charged world and for me, was central to the success of the piece.

The title for the film is an interesting choice. It references a work of the same name painted by van Gogh just weeks before his death in 1890. This painting depicts a pensioner and war veteran, Adrianus Jacobus Zuyderland, sitting on a wooden chair by the fire, his bald head dropped onto his clenched fists. The image, coupled with its title suggests the nearness of death, or perhaps of eternity, for the old man. Using the same title for the film foreshadows van Gogh’s own death and also I feel, alludes to the recurring theme of faith. van Gogh was the son a dutch minister. The film portrays a man of devout belief, in one poignant scene he says that when he sees a flat landscape, he sees eternity, and asks “Am I the only one to see it?”

Other central themes of isolation and madness are underscored with the use of long shots positioning van Gogh alone in the vastness of a wide landscape; and with extreme close ups on his face where Dafoe’s liquid eyes draw you into his character’s confusion and disorientation.

The depiction of life in late 1880’s rural France is effective. Close attention has been paid to his oeuvre for costuming and scene setting.  His prodigious output of paintings reflecting the life and landscape surrounding him has allowed for a vivid reconstruction of his world in the film. In one of many memorable scenes, we see Paul Gauguin (Oscar Issac) paint  Marie Ginoux who van Gogh later painted as L’Arlesienne (after Gauguin). Her face, clothing and the background faithfully re-created.

Structurally, the technique of using of a black screen with voiceover to propel the film from one main event to another, does not work for me. It breaks my emotional connection with the characters every time it happens. It may have be percieved as an expression of van Gogh’s internal dialogue, but it pulls the viewer out of the narrative.

Frequently, Benoit Delhomme’s (The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas , 2008) distorted cinematography forces the audience to see things differently. The camera is tilted at strange angles, or hand held following van Gogh as he runs across a field; or one half of the shot blurred, smudging the colours as though viewed through a rain splattered window. It takes a little getting used to. At first I thought I had the beginnings of a migraine. I found I was constantly moving my head, trying to maintain “normal’ in terms of shot presentation.

The reason behind this unusual choice is perhaps to allow us to experience what van Gogh may have felt, out of step and at odds with the world around him. If this was the intention, it worked, as it produced a visceral response in me, leaving me nauseous and slightly dizzy at times. However, I feel it may limit the film’s wider appeal, as feeling unwell is probably not the experience the average movie-goer is seeking.

One thought on “At Eternity’s Gate – A Review

  1. captsimonwalker says:

    I loved the film and thought the distorted images reflected his attempts to get viewers to see the world and nature as he saw it. The film portrays his death as an accidental shooting by others, rather than the more widely held belief that he was a suicide.
    Beautiful in many ways and superbly acted.

    Like

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