You hear him speak before you see him paint. The screen black, Vincent Van Gogh tells us what he wants — desires big and small, like earning the respect of his peers and eating a sandwich. It’s a bold way of opening a film about the iconic painter, which is expected with Willem Dafoe in front of the camera and Julian Schnabel behind it in an unconventional biopic that, at its best, is a masterwork worthy of Van Gogh.
The first real scene of “At Eternity’s Gate” is shot with a handheld camera hovering just inches from a woman’s face, as though we’re meant to be seeing her through Van Gogh’s eyes, our field of vision blurred at the edges. Just as the dialogue alternates between French and English, so too does Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography alternate between impressionistic and more straightforward takes.
That radical approach, sure to alienate some, is in keeping with its subject. “Maybe God made me a painter for people who aren’t here yet,” the penniless artist says during one of several stints in a sanitarium; Schnabel seems intent on honoring Van Gogh by eschewing convention even if it means his film is similarly misunderstood. He’s hardly the first to make a movie about the one-eared painter — the documentary “Loving Vincent” earned an Oscar nod just last year, and both Maurie Pialat and Robert Altman went the biopic route in the early 1990s — but none of his predecessors were this daring. Schnabel fuses form and content in a way that’s rarely attempted and even more rarely achieved; in risking the same derision with which Van Gogh was sometimes met, he transcends the limitations of the conventional biopic and creates something that feels genuinely new.
A painter himself, the filmmaker is less concerned with a factual account of Van Gogh’s life than he is with creating a subjective experience that makes all the world feel like a canvas for its brilliant, deeply troubled protagonist. The landscapes he invites us to observe really do feel eternal at times, and more than one scene is devoted to simply watching Van Gogh bask in — and, in some way, be damaged by — the overwhelming beauty he’s gazing upon. Rather than simply suggest that madness and genius are inextricably linked, as countless movies of this sort have already done, the filmmaker portrays the act of creating art as less an action and more a state of being, an ever-flowing stream that the man holding the paintbrush is powerless to stop or even control.
Watching the artist at work and hearing nothing but his rapid brushstrokes as the wind howls in the background is meditative, even mesmeric; “At Eternity’s Gate” is as attuned to the natural world as to its subject’s process. The film ranks alongside the likes of “Mr. Turner” and “My Left Foot” for its depiction of both the artist in question and a taxing creative process that took as much from him as it contributed to the world.
Dafoe is inspired in the kind of performance that makes an actor being cast as a famous figure seem inevitable in hindsight; he’s already built one of the most estimable bodies of work of any working actor, but his filmography immediately feels more complete and essential than it did before. You can feel his awe, as well as his grief, in every single scene: “Every time I look, I see something I’ve never seen before,” he says one point. Overwhelmed by the natural beauty of the world, perhaps to the point of madness, he sees in it a “vibrant energy” and is sometimes being rendered unconscious during his episodes. When he awakes, it takes him minutes to remember his own name. Vincent senses a menacing spirit around him at times, felt but not seen, and as he succumbs to it Dafoe’s performance becomes ever more heartbreaking.
But his portrayal isn’t without its humor, as when Van Gogh praises Monet as being “pretty good” and responds “just the good ones” when asked if all painters are insane. The banter extends to more serious topics as well, with the artist engaging in frequent debate with Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) on the nature and purpose of art. Freewheeling and spontaneous, our man believes that paintings must be done quickly, in one extended gesture; Gauguin prefers a more measured approach that allows time to consider how the paint actually rests on the canvas — he believes Van Gogh over-paints to the point of being more like a sculptor. Isaac plays off Dafoe brilliantly, matching his energy and magnetism in a number of scenes, but Schnabel is laser-so focused on Van Gogh that this almost feels like a solo performance.
More revealing than the two artists’ occasionally on-the-nose discussions is a scene in which Vincent is seen reading a pocket-sized edition of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” and patiently explains to the owner of the establishment he’s patronizing just who Shakespeare and Richard III were. “You shouldn’t read a bastard’s story,” she says when hearing of the vicious monarch’s many crimes; Van Gogh responds that the play is worth reading because Shakespeare was the most mysterious of writers, and that he loves the mystery of the world. Loving “At Eternity’s Gate” may likewise depend on loving the world’s countless mysteries, content to grasp at a kind of cosmic truth without ever fully reaching it.
“At Eternity’s Gate” world premiered the Venice Film Festival. CBS Films will release it later this year.