Willem Dafoe is an im­pas­sioned, con­vinc­ing Vin­cent van Gogh

The Kansas City Star - - News - BY MICHAEL O’SUL­LI­VAN The Wash­ing­ton Post

Ju­lian Schn­abel’s fas­ci­nat­ing and at times frus­trat­ing new drama about Vin­cent van Gogh, “At Eter­nity’s Gate,” ex­ists, as its ti­tle sug­gests, in a lim­i­nal space. Much like the pain­ter, who died without the recog­ni­tion he de­served, the movie ap­proaches great­ness without quite achiev­ing it.

Set in the fi­nal 2 1/2 years of van Gogh’s life — be­gin­ning with his meet­ing the pain­ter Paul Gau­guin in late 1887, and end­ing with the artist’s death in the sum­mer of 1890 — the film, which stars an un­can­nily con­vinc­ing Willem Dafoe, is at its best when it shows rather than tells. De­spite be­ing 25 years older than van Gogh was when he died, Dafoe de­liv­ers an im­pas­sioned and be­liev­able per­for­mance, his deeply lined face cap­tur­ing the mix of agony and ec­stasy — to bor­row a phrase from an­other artis­tic biopic — that this tor­tured artist must have felt.

In of­ten word­less scenes, cin­e­matog­ra­pher Benoît Del­homme’s hand­held cam­era seems to al­ter­nate be­tween danc­ing with Dafoe in some scenes and then at­tack­ing him in oth­ers, run­ning along­side the ac­tor here, and then swirling around him lyri­cally there. When Schn­abel, a pain­ter him­self, turns his at­ten­tion to the act of mark-mak­ing — with close-ups of rapid ink sketches or thick, im­pasto brush­strokes be­ing laid on a sketch pad or can­vas — van Gogh’s cre­ative process feels pal­pa­bly alive.

The paint­ings seem to come from some un­con­trol­lable, pri­mal im­pulse.

But the film mar­ries these ef­fec­tive if self­con­sciously im­pres­sion­is­tic vi­su­als — in­clud­ing an over­re­liance on a partly blurred lens that soon starts to feel like an in­tru­sive af­fec­ta­tion — with an all too on-the-nose screen­play (co-writ­ten by Jean-Claude Car­rière, Louise Kugel­berg and Schn­abel). No one would call “At Eter­nity’s Gate” a talky film, but when it does fo­cus on the words over pic­tures, it’s less than elo­quent.

“Maybe God made me a pain­ter for peo­ple who aren’t born yet,” says van Gogh. That’s a beau­ti­ful (if slightly ego­tis­ti­cal) sen­ti­ment, but it doesn’t sound quite right coming from the mouth of a man plagued by self-doubt and de­pres­sion. “There’s a lot of de­struc­tion and fail­ure at the door of a suc­cess­ful pic­ture,” he tells us in an­other scene. That’s a bet­ter and more plau­si­ble bit of in­sight.

So is his lament: “I have a men­ac­ing spirit around me.”

Much of the talk­ing, when it oc­curs, takes place in the con­text of con­ver­sa­tions, ar­gu­ments and en­treaties be­tween van Gogh and his friend Gau­guin (Os­car Isaac), his doc­tor (Mathieu Amal­ric) and his brother (Ru­pert Friend), or in voice-over nar­ra­tion. It’s nec­es­sary, but doesn’t al­ways ring true. At its worst, it can be as ex­cit­ing as lis­ten­ing to peo­ple talk about dry­ing paint.

“At Eter­nity’s Gate” takes its name from a can­vas of an old man, made in the fi­nal months of van Gogh’s life, that thrums with a fore­bod­ing of the sub­ject’s mor­tal­ity. In that pic­ture, the sub­ject sits with his bald­ing head bowed, his face buried in his fists, as if he can’t bear to face his own demise.

In the con­text of the film, those three words — and the old man’s in­abil­ity to look at the world square on — take on an­other mean­ing. “I see eter­nity in a flat land­scape,” van Gogh says. “Am I the only one?” Here, he isn’t talk­ing about squeamish­ness be­fore death, but a feel­ing of be­ing out of step with the world, at least as most peo­ple see it. Only in art, as van Gogh ex­plains else­where in the film, can flow­ers re­main alive for­ever, and women eter­nally young.

If “At Eter­nity’s Gate” gets one thing right, al­most oblit­er­at­ing all that it gets wrong, it’s that sense of life’s un­bear­able beauty.

LILY GAVIN CBS Films

Willem Dafoe stars as the Dutch pain­ter Vin­cent van Gogh in “At Eter­nity's Gate.”

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