'At Eternity's Gate': The Art of Madness

At Eternity’s Gate
(USA/France/Switzerland, 110 min.)
Dir. Julian Schnabel, Writ. Jean-Claude Carrière, Louise Kugelberg, Julian Schnabel
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Emmanuelle Seigner, Mads Mikkelsen
Willem Dafoe stars as Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity's Gate
Photo by Lily Gavin
Julian Schnabel is a master of visual poetry. The Oscar-nominated director of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly returns with another original and impeccably realized dive into the artistic process. Schnabel, a painter as well as a filmmaker, daubs a canvas of dreams and madness while bringing to the screen the brilliant yet troubled mind of Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, played masterfully by Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project). The film is not a cradle to grave biography of the artist who is as famous for his Starry Night painting as he is for cutting off his ear. Instead, it’s an impressionistic interpretation of a genius both fuelled and plagued by demons. At Eternity’s Gate feels the evocative portrait Van Gogh would have wanted.

The film centres on the final stages of Van Gogh’s life when he retreats to the small village of Arles, France to recuperate and find inspiration, culminating in his incarceration in a sanatorium and his eventual death, which the film proposes was a murder and not a suicide as was long believed. (I assumed the murder was a metaphor for a world that didn’t want Vincent, but the final title cards make the act a literal one.) Van Gogh moves to the small, sunny, but unfortunately basic community of Arles with hopes of starting an artistic co-op of sorts. When the film begins, Vincent is getting the boot from a small café that he promised the proprietor would become a vibrant mini-gallery of masterworks by local artists. Nobody shows, though, so Van Gogh fills the walls with literally every painting at his disposal. It’s a poor showcase of his work, especially since the critics had yet to discover him at the time, so nobody going through the little café in search of a buttery croissant would know how to grapple with his unconventional strokes.

Schnabel, working from a screenplay written with his partner Louise Kugelberg (who also edited the film with him) and master filmmaker Jean-Claude Carrière, presents audiences with Van Gogh as a blank canvas. This Van Gogh is the epitome of a starving artist when we meet him, destitute and penniless, surviving only on the charity of his brother Theo (Rupert Friend) and the patience of the local hotelier, Madame Ginoux (Emmanuelle Seigner). Vincent is in a bit of a rut as depression plagues him in the small town despite the warmth and sunshine. He paints daily, but mostly eye-catching, if derivative landscapes. One scene sees a spark of genius as he plunks his boots down onto the stone floor and captures their likeness in elegant strokes. Looking beyond the portraits of divinity held in high esteem by the classists, Van Gogh seeks a way to elevate the mundane using swathes of shadow and light.

The film follows Van Gogh around the countryside as he searches for, and occasionally finds, beauty in fits and starts of artistic madness. A sketch here and a watercolour there, and At Eternity’s Gate conveys the tedious and sometimes debilitating struggle of the creative process. Van Gogh is often at the cusp of creating something great, but he needs the right mood or spark to achieve it.

Take, for example, the beauty of his host Madame Ginoux. The working class hotel matron obviously has an interest in Van Gogh’s art, curiously asking questions of the artist when virtually everyone else in the village avoids Vincent like the plague. She even casts some baiting questions with hopes to become his next subject. Schnabel and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme (The Theory of Everything) offer a curious point of view shot from Van Gogh’s perspective that takes in Madame Ginoux’s smiling face. Whatever beauty she has, he doesn’t see it. The drab shadows of her dining room emphasize the weathers of age and labour. Instead, he asks the mailman to sit for him and model a face better characterized by awful lighting, much to Madame Ginoux’s obvious disappointment.

Cut to a later scene and Madame Ginoux, decked out in her Sunday best, sits for Van Gogh’s friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). The light hits Madame Ginoux just right as she avoids Vincent’s gaze and shields herself from his view. With a spark, he sets paintbrush to canvas. The rest is history as the beautiful woman, who seemed drab and homely from one perspective, inspires one of the 19th century’s most iconic series of portraits.

At Eternity’s Gate consists of these revelatory moments in which Van Gogh finds his voice as an artist. The film evokes the maddening joy of the creative process as Schnabel and Kugelberg convey Vincent’s energy through shot duration and tempo as some scenes spark with the same short and furious strokes with which Van Gogh dabbles paint into his gorgeous landscape impressions. Art lovers will especially relish how At Eternity’s Gate captures the textural qualities of Van Gogh’s art by bringing the camera up close and intimate to the canvas as the lens all but caresses the swathes of paint in Vincent’s work that Gauguin likens to clay mouldings. Similarly, Delhomme’s camera finds a grand canvas on Dafoe’s face and enjoys in Van Gogh’s weathered and frazzled visage the same textural qualities that bring the artist’s landscapes to life. Wrinkles have never been as evocative as the sun hits them just right, and At Eternity’s Gate finds in its compositions the same attention to light and shadow that makes Van Gogh’s work so strong.

This portrait of an artist as a tortured soul finds an equally fine painter in Dafoe, who gives an immersive performance as Van Gogh. At Eternity’s Gate is a great example of taking a character actor and making him a leading man as the uncanny characteristics of Dafoe’s face—his sharp noise and wild eyes—offer both a fair likeness for Vincent van Gogh and a perfect vessel for the artist’s inner turmoil. If there is one look that Dafoe masters well, it’s that of a madman, but he also brings the same warmth and humanity that drew such acclaim to his work in last year’s The Florida Project. His Vincent Van Gogh is a man of light and darkness, brought to life with the same vivid details of the artist’s best self-portraits.

At Eternity’s Gate opens in Toronto at the Varsity on Nov. 23.