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At Eternity's Gate

At Eternity's Gate (2018)

Willem Dafoe’s Vincent Van Gogh was the performance of 2018. The film itself was modest in scope, almost boutique in feel, which, added to the fact that there were no social justice or fashionable causes advocated, may have caused the Academy members to pass over this unique and striking performance.

There have been several good screen portrayals of the fascinating painter, making it all the trickier to develop a character about whom so much has been written, and displayed so thoroughly. It’s hard to say whether the director, artist Julian Schnabel, had any input on the characterization. The screenplay was co-written by Schnabel, his girlfriend Louise Kugelberg, and the veteran Jean-Claude Carriere. We would guess that Mr. Carriere did most of the heavy lifting on the treatment.

The sound palette and photography were very important. The music of the wind, rustling wheat fields, and Van Gogh’s firm brush strokes blended with the beautiful scenes captured by cinematographer Benoit Delhomme. To his credit they didn’t attempt to mimic the essence of the paintings with film technique, but rather offered them both as a duet and a nod to Van Gogh’s inspiration.

Likewise they resisted the use of art film techniques to accompany the subject’s well known mental decline. Tatiana Lisovskaya’s score was adequate, but at times the unaccompanied piano portions didn’t seem to want to commit either to dissonance or tonality, instead providing sophomoric chords or intervals that were confusing in their ambiguity. Yet at other times the music perfectly matched the mood.

Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of Paul Gaugin seemed off the mark. The treatment seemed too conservative for such an opinionated and assertive character. On the other hand Mads Mikkelsen gave a powerful and nuanced cameo performance of the priest who ultimately decided to allow Van Gogh to be released from his last asylum stay. All the other character parts were first rate.

In a masterful decision the producers did not dwell on the infamous ear cutting event. In fact it was not even shown, but left only to the imagination. One wonders if Dafoe exhibits more resemblance to Van Gogh from his right side, since in the film they incorrectly chose the left ear for excision, whereas in real life it was the right.

The movie title took its name from one of Van Gogh’s works completed two months before his death, Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate), painted from memory of an earlier pencil drawing. The time frame is the last few years of his life in France, first at Arles, and finally at Auvers-sur-Oise. His death has long been thought to have been a suicide, but more recent evidence has emerged that suggested accidental death. This is the route taken by the film.

He desired "not to see a landscape but only the eternity behind it". This is an excellent study of Van Gogh’s final years, and a memorable portrayal of the afflicted artist by Willem Dafoe that should not be missed.

Doc’s rating: 9/10