Set in the final 2½ years of van Gogh’s life — beginning with his meeting the painter Paul Gauguin in late 1887, and ending with the artist’s death in the summer of 1890 — the film, which stars an uncannily convincing Willem Dafoe, is at its best when it shows rather than tells. Despite being 25 years older than van Gogh was when he died, Dafoe delivers an impassioned and believable performance, his deeply lined face capturing the mix of agony and ecstasy — to borrow a phrase from another artistic biopic — that this tortured artist must have felt.
In often wordless scenes, cinematographer Benoît Delhomme’s handheld camera seems to alternate between dancing with Dafoe in some scenes and then attacking him in others, running alongside the actor here, and then swirling around him lyrically there. When Schnabel, a painter himself, turns his attention to the act of mark-making — with close-ups of rapid ink sketches or thick, impasto brushstrokes being laid on a sketch pad or canvas — van Gogh’s creative process feels palpably alive.
The paintings seem to come from some uncontrollable, primal impulse.
But the film marries these effective if self-consciously impressionistic visuals — including an overreliance on a partly blurred lens that soon starts to feel like an intrusive affectation — with an all too on-the-nose screenplay (co-written by Jean-Claude Carrière, Louise Kugelberg and Schnabel). No one would call “At Eternity’s Gate” a talky film, but when it does focus on the words over pictures, it’s less than eloquent.
“Maybe God made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet,” says van Gogh. That’s a beautiful (if slightly egotistical) sentiment, but it doesn’t sound quite right coming from the mouth of a man plagued by self-doubt and depression. “There’s a lot of destruction and failure at the door of a successful picture,” he tells us in another scene. That’s a better and more plausible bit of insight.
So is his lament: “I have a menacing spirit around me.”
Much of the talking, when it occurs, takes place in the context of conversations, arguments and entreaties between van Gogh and his friend Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), his doctor (Mathieu Amalric) and his brother (Rupert Friend), or in voice-over narration. It’s necessary, but doesn’t always ring true. At its worst, it can be as exciting as listening to people talk about drying paint.
“At Eternity’s Gate” takes its name from a canvas of an old man, made in the final months of van Gogh’s life, that thrums with a foreboding of the subject’s mortality. In that picture, the subject sits with his balding head bowed, his face buried in his fists, as if he can’t bear to face his own demise.
In the context of the film, those three words — and the old man’s inability to look at the world square on — take on another meaning. “I see eternity in a flat landscape,” van Gogh says. “Am I the only one?” Here, he isn’t talking about squeamishness before death, but a feeling of being out of step with the world, at least as most people see it. Only in art, as van Gogh explains elsewhere in the film, can flowers remain alive forever, and women eternally young.
If “At Eternity’s Gate” gets one thing right, almost obliterating all that it gets wrong, it’s that sense of life’s unbearable beauty.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains brief strong language and some mature thematic material. 111 minutes.