At Eternity’s Gate
Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen
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…stronger as the character becomes more intense and arguably unhinged.
Set mostly in and around Arles in the south of France, this is an uneven but engaging study of Vincent Van Gogh. The first actor to make a significant impact in it is not however Willem Dafoe (who plays the man himself), but Oscar Isaac in a powerfully charismatic performance as Paul Gauguin.
Dafoe’s effect on the viewer is more inexorable, growing stronger as the character becomes more intense and arguably unhinged. It may be a funny thing to say about a film which is essentially about painting, but the best scenes are the ones which are driven by dialogue rather than anything visual. When an anguished and wild-eyed Vincent exclaims “I need to be in a feverish state”, and argues that “God is nature and nature is beauty” – or refers to the menacing spirit which surrounds him – it’s riveting. That said, there are gorgeous set-pieces, such as the scene where Van Gogh looks at the work of various Old Masters in what is presumably the Louvre.
Julian Schnabel was a (famous) painter before he ever wrote or directed a film (Basquiat), and that’s a mixed blessing when it comes to making one about another artist. The style of the movie itself is intermittently impressionistic, and sometimes pretentious. There are pointlessly unusual camera angles and close-ups, and occasional blurring to the point of discomfort.
Another distraction, incidentally, is the intrusive instrumental soundtrack. But if the whole thing never quite equals the sum of its parts, some of those parts are interesting.
And not least is the fact that the screenwriters subscribe to a highly credible – but still not quite proven – recent theory about Van Gogh’s death.