“What do you paint?” The question comes from an asylum inmate who is seated next to Vincent van Gogh (Willem Dafoe). Van Gogh replies with a single word: “Sunlight.” That may be as good a description of van Gogh’s art as you’re likely to get. In his brief time on this planet (he died, in 1890, at 37), and the even briefer period of his full creative effusion, van Gogh painted flowers, wheat fields, vineyards, cafés, chairs, boats, starry nights, and himself, but what he really painted was the light that bounced off those things and rippled through them. He painted the ecstatic holiness he saw in that light, with each brush stroke a mystic gob of sensuality and spirit.
“At Eternity’s Gate,” Julian Schnabel’s fluky and transporting drama about van Gogh’s tumultuous, fervid, and artistically possessed last days, is a movie that channels the light, the evanescent glow of van Gogh’s painting and being, like lightning in a bottle. Shot with a hand-held camera, and set during the time van Gogh spent in the small Provençal town of Arles in the south of France, where he at one point completed 75 paintings (many of them legendary) in 80 days, it’s a flowingly intuitive and celebratory biopic — a bursting sunflower of a movie. Schnabel, the director of “Before Night Falls” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” has stripped down his filmmaking in the most seductive way, all to achieve something audacious and elemental. He’s out to imagine what Vincent van Gogh was really like, and to bask in van Gogh’s presence with an experiential, present-tense immediacy.
“At Eternity’s Gate” doesn’t pretend to be “definitive.” It’s a drama of moments, fragments, impressions, and though it shows us van Gogh as a haunted soul, locked in a battle with his mental problems, we hear about those demons more that we actually see them take hold. The film’s vision of van Gogh is honest and incisive and, at the same time, unabashedly romantic. You might call it a portrait of the artist as the world’s first flower child.
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I mean that as praise. Schnabel, paying tribute to the founding visionary of modern art, a painter who inflected 19th-century landscapes and people and objects with 20th-century delirium, is in deep synch with van Gogh’s spirit. He knows the popular conception of van Gogh is that he was the poster-boy image of the “tormented” artist (impoverished, unappreciated, a little crazy), and rather than undermining any of that, since it’s all true, he ditches the cliché by weaving a complicated vision of van Gogh’s joy into the tapestry of his fabled unhappiness.
Vincent, portrayed with luminous intensity and power by Willem Dafoe, is a man literally in love with the world — with the transcendence of nature, which he considers holy. The film opens in Paris, where van Gogh, having finagled a “show” of his paintings on the shadowy wall of a restaurant (it was supposed to be a group show, but none of his fellow artists came through), is in a state of frantic despair. But then he meets Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), who advises him to go south, and when he arrives in the country town of Arles, he knows he’s home. He has found the source of the light.
Schnabel’s camera follows van Gogh as he wanders through the rippling wheat fields in his straw hat, a wooden easel on his back, or sprinkles earth on his face, or stands in stalks as tall as he is, arms outstretched, wearing a smile of heaven as he lets nature’s bliss flow through him. That sounds corny (and is a bit), but sometimes an artist of cinema has to dare to be corny. “At Eternity’s Gate” isn’t flawless, but it’s the fullest vision of van Gogh I’ve seen on film, besting Vincente Minnelli’s “Lust for Life” (1956) and Robert Altman’s “Vincent & Theo” (1990).
The movie is sophisticated enough to portray van Gogh as a depressive personality who used nature, and his passion for turning it into painting, as a drug. He’s an addict of beauty; without his fix, he goes a little nuts. It’s as it he’s literally imbibing the splendor of the world. “When I face a flat landscape,” he says, “I see nothing but eternity. Am I the only one who sees it?” He’s the only who sees it the way he does, and Schnabel, who as a painter has an advantage when it comes to showing how van Gogh did his canvases, turns the painting scenes into fascinatingly organic visions of a genius at work.
Starting with the moment Vincent arrives in his shivery one-room hovel in Arles and takes off his laced boots, which he turns into a still life, it’s thrilling to see Dafoe apply those brush strokes, mashing the shiny greasy colors together, the pigment literally blending into focus, as some of van Gogh’s most famous paintings come to life. There’s a madness to his method, since it cuts against everything that painting — including the impressionists — has been. Even Gauguin, who becomes his aesthete comrade and ambivalent friend, accuses Vincent of using too much paint. “Your surface looks like it’s made out of clay,” he says, “It’s more like sculpture than painting.” But that, of course, is its special eye-candy sublimity. Van Gogh’s canvases literally explode with color.
Dafoe hasn’t had a role since “The Last Temptation of Christ” that allows him to combine agony and ecstasy, devotion to a higher calling with…well, a messiah complex as majestically as this one does. Schnabel, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jean-Claude Carrière and Louise Kugelberg, has drawn his characterization of van Gogh from the hundreds of letters the artist wrote to his brother, Theo. Dafoe plays him as a pensively forlorn and even quite rational man who’s struggling to make sense of the intensity of feeling that art and nature conjure inside him. The actor’s look — haunted eyes, beakish nose, beatific scowl — squares marvelously with the image of van Gogh we know from the self-portraits, and Dafoe’s voice, a kind of possessed whine, always imploring those around him to hear the truth, lends Vincent a desperate authority. Vincent is prone to isolating himself (he suffers from social anxiety disorder), but when he’s not communing with the countryside or the locals he approaches with the hopes of painting them, he engages in dialogues that are gripping in their confessional fervor.
We don’t see the ear slicing, which the film suggests was committed during an alcoholic blackout. But we see the conversation that Vincent has with a psychiatrist shortly afterward, his bandaged head peering into the camera as he searches for the reasons he might have done it. Was it about his fractured friendship with Gauguin? Or was he trying to cut out the menacing “presence” he says he feels around — that is, inside — himself? Schnabel knows the folly of trying to explain such a legendary moment of madhouse mystery, but Dafoe’s acting in this scene is a tour de force. What it does explain is how Vincent’s whole hunger to share, through painting, the unearthly magnificence of what he sees is inextricable from the visions that haunt him.
Vincent, having made enemies of the townsfolk, keeps getting tossed into the nearby asylum at Saint-R’émy-de-Provence. But his work also receives a rave review of astonishing eloquence from the art critic Albert Aurier (“Never has there been a painter whose art appeals so directly to the senses”), and when Vincent visits the benevolent, bourgeois Theo (Rupert Friend) in Paris, the movie doesn’t really let us know why he dismisses the review (hasn’t he been yearning for others to love his art?), or won’t consider meeting anyone from the Paris art world, including Aurier. There are moments when “At Eternity’s Gate” could have used some more traditional script carpentry.
Yet there are compelling motifs sprinkled throughout (like what the film does with the account ledger in which van Gogh scrawls 65 etchings — all in plain ink, and still psychedelic). And the dialogue is heady and searching, from Vincent’s lively debates on painting with Isaac’s prickly, fastidious Gauguin to his slightly sinister tête-à-tête with Mads Mikkelsen as a scolding priest who thinks Vincent’s paintings are ugly. It’s during this conversation that Vincent declares, or almost discovers, his deep identification with Christ: another man who had visions of the ages and was under-appreciated in his time. Vincent’s inner pain is that he knows he’s an artist of the future. He has glimpsed the world that’s coming — the world of the senses, of the here and now, made divine and tactile and flushed with the madness of color — and the movie suggests that one of the reasons he leaves this earth too early is that he can hardly wait to see it arrive.