In this dreamlike journey through the artist’s later years, American painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel frames the artist as the director wants to see him, keeping his drunkenness, violence and bouts of psychosis somewhere just off-screen.
The film presents a fragmented and impressionistic series of vignettes filmed in a drunken POV aspect, as though the whole thing is one big wobbly Instagram story, like we might accidentally crash into Van Gogh’s forehead at any moment.
There’s the fateful gallery exhibition where he first meets Paul Gaugin, his long expedition to Arles where he meets his famous bedroom, and his voluntary asylum in a psychological hospital. The lopping off of his own ear is a dramatic highlight, of course, but it’s not the film’s turning point. Instead it’s a moment that Schnabel is careful not to allow to overshadow the rest of the piece.
Like his other frequent piques of insanity we’re diverted around it, and shown only the confusion and sadness of Van Gogh in the aftermath. Where some biographies try to draw a link between his mental health and his creativity, this is a sympathetic framing that paints the artist as a powerless victim of his disease.
Scenes are mostly wordless, always from the perspective of Van Gogh and frequently seen through the literal lens of his own degrading eyesight. A retinal smear blurs the lower half of the screen in these scenes, and a growing yellow tinge eventually subsumes all other colours in the frame.
His condition is one apocryphal explanation for his increasingly liberal use of yellow paint, just as his ravaged corneas are said to have inspired the shimmering, haloed stars of Starry Night Over The Rhone.
Nominated for an Oscar for the role, Willem Dafoe is captivating as Van Gogh, bringing the artist’s process to life in beautifully scored primal painting scenes where he stabs at the canvas with heavy brushstrokes, putting down in paint his personal version of the world in front of him.
A trippy and perspective-shifting look at the last years of an enigmatic artist, At Eternity’s Gate is at its most compelling when we’re simply watching him work.