A commanding performance from Dafoe and an experimental visual style make At Eternity’s Gate a dense but creatively ambitious film that powerfully explores Van Gogh’s psyche.
Has any artist’s life been more thoroughly dissected in popular culture than Vincent Van Gogh? He serves as the patron saint for the perennially misunderstood, a tortured soul whose genius went unappreciated until after his premature death. At Eternity’s Gate joins the quest to delve into Van Gogh’s psyche, and while it could certainly be accused of inaccessibility, it seems to understand his mental state better than other similar films.
At the point where this film begins, Van Gogh is a deeply depressed figure who has isolated himself in the French countryside, only taking solace in the immersion of his work into nature. He is continually, compulsively painting, as though it’s the only way for him to keep his demons at bay. He is mistrusted and even feared in the village, surviving on the allowance given to him by his financially successful younger brother, and is frequently in and out of different psychiatric institutions. This is our Vincent Van Gogh.
He is played by Willem Dafoe, who cleverly adjusts the somewhat off-kilter persona he has cultivated and morphs into a lonely, mercurial, but somehow endearing man. Even when he flies off into a rage or exhibits other troubling behavior, we are able to sympathize and see the man who is struggling with everything he has to cope with the mental illness he is all too aware of. It’s a deeply intimate performance from Dafoe, and his emotional restraint makes the darker moments all the more effective.
One highlight is his conversation with a priest (played by the always excellent Mads Mikkelsen) who is evaluating whether or not Van Gogh poses a threat to society. Here we see him attempt, not for the first time, to put into words how his mind works. He (and all of 19th-century psychiatry, for that matter) don’t have the vocabulary to properly describe this, but his straightforward musings with an odd sense of detachment offer a tantalizing glimpse into his mental state for modern audiences.
Van Gogh inarguably perceived the world differently than other people, which director Julian Schnabel tries to capture with his visual style. He plays with angles, colors, and light in an attempt to shake the audience out of their conventional view of nature. The effect is striking — we are keenly aware of the strangeness of his visuals, but also of their beauty. At times, it feels as though we’re seeing things the way he must have seen them.
While the narrative is fairly straightforward, there are little quirks that reflect Van Gogh’s mental volatility. When he’s emotionally stable (relatively speaking, of course), things play out like a traditional period drama, but when he’s under duress, everything changes. We hear lines, entire conversations, repeating themselves, the images shown on screen are more abstract and unconventional, and we can immediately tell that something’s wrong.
These techniques may not make for a particularly pleasant viewing experience for everyone, but they have the effect of granting us greater access into the mind of this artist than we’ve had in any other film about Van Gogh. That plus a commanding performance from Dafoe create a film that may not win over the hearts and minds of casual audiences everywhere, but one whose creative ambition should be deeply admired.