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The art of suffering

Willem Dafoe delivers a heartbreaking performance in this messy Van Gogh biopic



Willem Dafoe in “At Eternity’s Gate”

Courtesy CBS Films

In his final years, Vincent Van Gogh suffered from frequent psychotic episodes and psychiatric hospital stays. He also endured a tumultuous—often antagonistic—relationship with fellow artist Paul Gauguin, all while creating some of his most iconic works of art. It’s ripe material for what could’ve been an engaging exploration of one of the most influential figures in the history of Western art. And yet, director Julian Schnabel’s Van Gogh biopic “At Eternity’s Gate” does little to shed new light on the poster child of the Tortured Artist, delivering instead a murky, raggedy, surface-level exploitation of the artist’s final days.

“At Eternity’s Gate” immerses us in the world as Van Gogh sees it. Through a fractured, oftentimes glaucomic point of view as we see the landscapes, still life, and denizens who would become the subjects of many of his most enduring works. Opting for shaky, hand-held closeups of Van Gogh staring agog at the beautiful landscapes, berating those around him, and sulking around psychiatric hospitals, the film is a tedious slog of Schnabel’s pretentious visual gimmickry.

This film really wants you to know how unappreciated in his time Van Gogh was. The central conceit of “At Eternity’s Gate” is the story of an artist born before his time, exercising his God-given talent in a time that never fully recognizes his brilliance and may never. “Maybe God made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet.” This line from the film lands with the sincerity of a Thomas Kinkade painting.

Van Gogh is frequently pilloried as being unrefined and sloppy. He’s pitied by his benefactor-brother Theo, who practically subsidizes his friendship with Gauguin—a relationship the film does little to fully explore. It is this relationship, after all, that led to Van Gogh’s most notorious and iconic outburst: taking a razor to his left ear and insisting a prostitute make sure Gauguin receives it.

Historical biopics can be challenging to pull off, yet they seem irresistible for self-aggrandizing filmmakers. Writer/director Julian Schnabel (“Before Night Falls,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) suffers from such an affliction. Himself an artist, Schnabel’s debut film was the loosely-told biopic of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, which was as much about Basquiat as it was Schnabel’s own self-important view of his role in the art world at that time. Schnabel can’t ever quite resist the urge to equate himself with more talented artists, this time applying his erratic, slapdash approach to filmmaking onto late-period life of Vincent Van Gogh.

It’s all very disappointing as Willem Dafoe as Van Gogh delivers a beautifully raw and sobering portrayal of the tortured soul with a paintbrush in what is certainly one of his career best. His frantic, often manic quest for inspiration and expressionistic color is mismatched by the naturalistic, frequently intrusive camerawork of cinematographer Benoit Delhomme.

Schnabel squanders Dafoe’s masterful performance. His embodiment of Van Gogh is nothing short of astonishing, portraying the artist like a feral cat, suffering from delusional bouts of mania and joyful inspiration with the innocence of a child who can’t quite take responsibility for his actions. The filmmaker misses opportunities to explore the depths of Van Gogh’s life and struggles—opting instead for prolonged, meandering musical interludes of Dafoe pondering French countrysides at sunset, wallowing in the dirt, and his own self-pity—to make this film anything close to a work of art.

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