At Eternity's Gate

 

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An outstanding performance in a wholly individual film about a famous painter.

 
At Eternity's Gate

Willem Dafoe

 

The story of the painter Vincent Van Gogh appears to have a perennial fascination for filmmakers. Quite apart from his life being inherently dramatic (this was after all the man who cut off one of his own ears and spent  time in an asylum), there is the awareness that audiences will respond sympathetically to the fate of an artist too unusual to be popular in his day but now a painter universally loved and respected. In At Eternity's Gate the actor playing Van Gogh is Willem Dafoe and his dedicated portrayal understandably won him an Oscar nomination this year (his illustrious predecessors in the role include Kirk Douglas, John Hurt and Tim Roth).

 

While it is true that Dafoe's performance is the best thing in this new work, it needs to be stressed that, regardless of those earlier treatments by the likes of Vincente Minnelli, Paul Cox, Robert Altman and Maurice Pialat, Julian Schnabel has created here a work quite distinctive from any that has preceded it. Its tone - Schnabel is working from a screenplay by the veteran Jean-Claude Carrière, Louise Kugelberg and himself - could be called impressionistic. Stylistically this involves a whole range of unusual features. Thus some images have affinities with abstract paintings, the music score mainly for the piano is strikingly individual, at intervals the screen goes black as we hear comments spoken by Dafoe in character, one or two moments play without the words being heard and, possibly to convey the time when the painter was becoming mentally unstable, we get certain sentences repeated as though ringing in his ears and visuals which incorporate superimpositions. All of this puts Schnabel's own signature on the piece which has a special interest in Van Gogh's attitudes as an artist: even the film's title is a reference to feelings of eternity conjured up for Van Gogh by landscapes while contrasted views about painting are heard as expressed by Van Gogh himself and by fellow-artist and friend Paul Gaugin (Oscar Isaac). 

 

But, if much of this individuality of style works well, some aspects do not. Especially early on - but sometimes in later scenes too - Schnabel uses a hand-held camera for 'Scope images wobbly enough to irritate while adding to that with constant and quite unnecessary camera movements. That is a serious misjudgment but I have no complaint over the dialogue's blend of English and subtitled French as the film covers Van Gogh's time in Arles. Despite a good supporting cast (Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Rupert Friend in addition to Isaac), this is very much Dafoe's film but, for better or worse (and both apply), it is also Schnabel's. And, yes, as further proof of originality the famous episode regarding Van Gogh's ear isn't shown at all but just mentioned as having happened during one of those sections when briefly the screen has gone black!

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Niels Arestrup, Anne Consigny, Amira Casar, Vincent Perez, Arthur Jacquin, Stella Schnabel.

 

Dir Julian Schnabel, Pro Jon Kilik, Screenplay Jean-Claude Carrière, Julian Schnabel and Louise Kugelberg, Ph Benoît Delhomme, Pro Des Stéphane Cressend, Ed Louise Kugelberg and Julian Schnabel, Music Tatiana Lisovkaia, Costumes Karen Muller-Serreau.

 

Riverstone Pictures/SPK Pictures/Rocket Science/Rahway Road Productions/Iconoclast-Curzon Film World.
111 mins. USA/France/UK/Switzerland/Ireland. 2018. Rel: 29 March 2019. Cert. 12A.