With At Eternity’s Gate coming out less than a year after Loving Vincent, the life of Vincent van Gogh seems like one of the weirder recent cinematic zeitgeists. Taking place in the twilight years of van Gogh’s (played by Willem Dafoe) life, At Eternity’s Gate differentiates itself by focusing in on the legendary painter’s mental health issues.
Much of the film is shot through van Gogh’s eyes, a technique with mixed results. It does effectively put us into his afflicted headspace, as do the invasive close ups, and Dafoe is a fantastic anchor, emphatically selling the panic and confusion that cursed van Gogh’s day to day existence. Yet, not all of the stylistic choices work. A whole heap of the film seems to have been captured with a GoPro camera, which doesn’t really fit the material and ends up being more messy than immersive.
Having conversations repeat constantly in van Gogh’s head as his anxiety causes him to overthink should be disorienting and moving, especially as it underlines his need to escape from himself through art. However, it doesn’t play out like that, as the replays often happen so soon after each actual conversation that hearing it again feels like a boring mistake.
At Eternity’s Gate puts a lot on the shoulders of its star and Dafoe more than delivers, saving the film from itself rather often. Rupert Friend and Oscar Isaac make for very able support, and Mads Mikkelsen gets a fantastic one scene role as a priest in an extended dialogue sequence that’s a lot more playful than the rest of the film.
Artistic biopics are rarely anything other than a mixed bag, as they require insights into their subjects’ minds that can make it hard to avoid heavy-handedness. Despite all its great performances, At Eternity’s Gate is no exception.
CAST: Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Almaric
DIRECTOR: Julian Schnabel
WRITERS: Jean-Claude Carrière, Julian Schnabel
SYNOPSIS: A look at Vincent van Gogh’s time in Arles.