Movie Review: Dafoe’s Van Gogh suffers, exults “At Eternity’s Gate”

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Rarely has an actor’s “baggage” served him better in a role than Willem Dafoe’s has in bringing Vincent Van Gogh to the screen in “At Eternity’s Gate.”

Soulful and wounded, testy and potentially dangerous — those are the hallmarks of Dafoe’s lustrous and gritty character actor’s career. And those fit neatly into our picture of Van Gogh, a sensitive, mercurial and impulsive character whose painting and actions have invited over a century of second-guessing and post-mortem psychoanalysis.

He even looks like Van Gogh, the Van Gogh of his self-portraits — worn, lined, fretful. We forget, in an instant, the the Great Dafoe has already lived decades longer than Vincent, who died at 37.

Julian Schnabel’s intimate, psychological look at his fellow artist’s life is valuable not so much for its conjecture on how Van Gogh died or even on his mental struggles, perhaps exacerbated — as the film suggests — by persecution by the rural locals he spent his last years living with and painting. “At Eternity’s Gate” glories in Dafoe’s fragile, manic take on the painter’s mad rush with the brush, his way of seeing the world, which was only truly validated after his death.

Schnabel’s rushed, jerking hand-held camera and judicious use of extreme closeups may underline and mimic Van Gogh’s frantic-to-see, frantic-to-paint, frantic-to-live state. But it is Dafoe who makes us see Vincent’s exultant moments and his despairing ones, makes him sympathetic — flesh and blood and pain and genius all there in his eyes.

“The essence of nature is beauty,” Vincent declares. Though to be fair — Schnabel also shows us many of Van Gogh’s uglier works. He saw beauty in the tangled, brown roots of an uprooted tree, in stark seasons where his beloved sunflowers have withered and rotted, in the despair of an old man in the painting the film takes its title from. 

This validates what the world has long thought of Van Gogh, what his friend and compatriot Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac, devil-may-care brilliant in the part) sees in Van Gogh, that “no one sees the world the same way” and nobody but nobody saw it like Van Gogh.

“People will be known because you painted them!”

Schnabel, who co-wrote the script, leans on what we already know about Van Gogh, the familiar parameters and geography of his circumscribed final years. “I hate the grey light” of Paris, he says. “Go South, Vincent,” Gauguin counsels. The more-successful Gauguin, meanwhile, keeps threatening to go “to Madagascar!” And not just for the light, but to get away from the competition, the struggle for acceptance, the money pressures. He never made it to Madagascar. And Martinique wasn’t enough of an escape for Gauguin, as he eventually found his way to Tahiti.

Van Gogh’s move to Arles and environs were well-covered by the glorious animated mystery, “Loving Vincent,” but Schnabel — like every other Van Gogh film biographer (Robert Altman’s “Vincent & Theo,” Vincente Minelli’s “Lust for Life”) cannot resist showing us the real people Vincent knew and the human subjects for many of his paintings.

Children storm his easel, and pelt him with stones when he shoos them away. A farm maid flips out when he impulsively asks her to pose, and then manhandles her into position for the most flattering light and animated pose.

“Paintings have to be done in full one gesture,” he exclaims. “The faster I paint, the better I feel!”

“Loving Vincent,” animated as if Van Gogh has done it with his own brush, is still the best appreciation of the artist and recounting of his troubled life. But Dafoe and Schnabel brilliantly give us the man — troubled but focused, misunderstood and scary, impulsive enough to remove the ear that let him hear distressing news, someone who saw the infinite in the muddy boots he took off and preserved on canvas in the yellow light of Arles.

Schnabel’s always been most at home making movies about fellow artists, and he is on his game with the the film’s hand-held style, Van Gogh color palette and appreciation, at every turn, of the artist’s plight. He also rounds up a wondrous supporting cast — Mads Mikkelsen as a sympathetic priest with no eye for art, Emmanuelle Seigner as Madame Ginoux, the cafe-owner/”friend” Van Gogh painted, with Mathieu Amalric (of Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”), the great French character actor Niels Arestrup as a fellow inmate in the asylum Van Gogh stayed in, Rupert Friend as the supportive brother/art dealer Theo Van Gogh and Vladmir Consigny as Dr. Felix, seen in a more sympathetic light here than in “Loving Vincent.

But it is Dafoe’s compact, internalized turn as the artist, letting us feel his pain rather than bellowing about it (see “Lust for Life” for that) that pulls us in and gets us as close to the artist as any film ever has. It’s glorious work, and a grand capstone to a fabulous career, with or without Oscar recognition.

3half-star

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some thematic content

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Emmanuelle Seigner, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Niels Arestrup, Vladimir Consigny, Mathieu Amalric, Stella Schnabel

Credits: Directed by Julian Schnabel, screenplay by Louise Kugelberg, Louise Kugelberg and Julian Schnabel.  A CBS Films release.

Running time: 1:50

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