The Last Temptation of Vincent.
The 2010s have been a good time to be a Vincent van Gogh fan. 2010 gave us a very teary Vincent-centric episode of Doctor Who, 2016 saw the rediscovery of some of his lost sketches, while 2017 saw the release of the visually stunning (but plot-wise iffy) hand-painted film Loving Vincent. And now we have the latest in a long line of Vincent biopics, At Eternity’s Gate.
And what could be better than having a cinematic portrayal of an artist be directed itself by an artist? Why, having it be directed by one who is no stranger to artistic biopics, in the form of Julian Schnabel (of Basquiat fame). And with a stellar turn from Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh, that’s just the finishing touch.
Chronicling the last years of van Gogh’s life, At Eternity’s Gate is a staggeringly raw portrait of mental illness, while also a powerful look at the quintessential tortured artist.
Dafoe, despite noticeably being twenty six years older than van Gogh was when he died, turns in a spectacular performance of a man fighting not only himself, but the world around him. Vincent van Gogh wasn’t a brusque Kirk Douglas type (a la 1956’s Lust for Life), but a man crumbling from his own poorly treated mental health, with painting as his only mode of therapy. Dafoe plays it beautifully, nearly fighting tears in every shot he’s in. A powerful portrayal indeed.
Schnabel’s directing is, at times, brilliant. Be it a field of dying flowers, or the simple change in colours as Vincent treks to find the perfect spot to paint, it’s usually staggeringly beautiful and never once boring. This is when he truly brings his artist background to the fore, crafting images that van Gogh himself may have been proud to have his name on, were he a cameraman. Whenever Vincent’s mind begins to race, audio from scenes just recently played are replayed, as if Vincent is reliving the moments where it all went wrong. This is a masterful technique, portraying the anxiety-addled head of a sensitive tortured artist. Yes he may take the odd artistic liberty with the presentation of Vincent’s life, but boy is it artistic!
However, Schnabel’s insistence that most shots be done in shakey-cam is a massive hindrance. Were it not for his previously mentioned eye for a shot, this review would be reverted to 3-star middle-of-the-road territory. At times it’s almost as if he’s showing off subtle test footage for him to direct the next Bourne film. And Schnabel’s uninspired choice of font, coupled with the time-tested trope of ending this biopic with onscreen text does the film little favours in terms of artistic ingenuity or originality, respectively. That and the odd bewildering edit to the soundtrack beggar belief. But even then, the pieces played always evoke raw emotion and compliment the story very well.
At Eternity’s Gate is an unflinching portrait of a sad, sick man who just wanted to share his vision of the world. And the world rejected both his vision and himself. Dafoe proves an impressive inhabitant for van Gogh’s damaged psyche, and carries the film with his stunning performance exceptionally.