It is worth watching At Eternity’s Gate for Julian Schnabel’s mesmerising cinematography alone. This new biopic of Vincent van Gogh, with the titular character played by William Dafoe, is rich with contextual information about the painter’s life and explores the profound bond he shared with his younger brother Theo, as portrayed by Rupert Friend. It also examines, in great detail, his history of mental illness and the blackouts he experienced during his worst psychotic breaks.
Dafoe honours our cultural memory of this artist and provides us with a perspective on the man as much as the artist. Though prone to violent outbreaks, such as the shocking scene when van Gogh screamed at a group of French children and chased them across a field, van Gogh is largely presented as a gentle-giant, at his happiest with a paint-brush in his hand. One of the aspects which surprised me the most was the kind of hero-worship which characterised the relationship between Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) and van Gogh – at least as portrayed by the film – as van Gogh was left heartbroken at his friend’s decision to leave ‘him’ (as he viewed it) and cut off his own ear, ostensibly to gift it to his fellow painter, not to a prostitute as pop culture has suggested.
In March 1886, van Gogh, moved from Antwerp to live with his brother Theo, thus heralding the beginning of his famous ‘Paris Years,’ until February 1888. It was under his brother’s guidance that Van Gogh became a member of the group of young avant-garde artists experimenting with new styles, attending the eighth and final exhibition of the French Impressionists work in Paris that same year. The Impressionists and the colour theories of Chevreul helped to alter his style which was to become still freer. Van Gogh’s original work was nurtured by Gauguin whose disregard for the conventional methods of painting forged a strong friendship between the two of them. Despite the exaggerated presentation of van Gogh as a kind of Messiah-figure the film beautifully showcases the French countryside and the layer of ‘fairy dust’ which has been scattered across this motion picture renders it the more poignant if anything.
The time which van Gogh spent committed to the Saint-Remy sanatorium was intercut with shots of him in conversation with his doctor, portrayed by Mathieu Amalric, whose eyes regularly fill with tears at the suffering this artist experiences. The ending of the film, with van Gogh’s prolonged death, is emotional – as is to be expected, and left me a little tearful. However, I do cry a lot so this might not be the best indicator of the film’s emotional impact. Schnabel follows the new cinematic trend in portraying van Gogh’s death as a tragic accident, as accepted by the recent animation Loving Vincent, offering the less critically acclaimed version of the events surrounding his death.
A film like this did not need to be produced, of course, the easiest way to understand an artist is always through their actual work. But I’m glad it was. It is a powerful portrayal of an artist who has always suffered under our misconceptions of him; then as now. One cannot help but think that van Gogh would be appalled by his fantastic immortalisation and would struggle to believe that one of his paintings could now sell for hundreds of millions of pounds. Van Gogh was a man of simple tastes, wanting only money for his painting equipment and food. The scenes where van Gogh wanders through the French countryside, breathing in the air as if it is the only thing keeping him sane and alive, feel very pertinent today for a world consumed by the excess and trappings of luxury. Like van Gogh, we too should go back to basics and strip away the learned fantasy, drawing upon what we know to be true within ourselves.