Following the last couple of years of one of the most lauded artists in history, At Eternity’s Gate explores the emotional fragility and artistic genius of Dutch painter, Vincent Van Gogh.
A field of dead sunflowers (a flower that signifies happiness) opens the film, foreshadowing both an artistic interest as well as symbolising his inability to achieve sustained happiness. The film demonstrates Van Gogh’s continual battle with his mind, showing him in doctor’s offices, a mental hospital and various states of emotional distress. His fragile mental state isn’t helped by a society trained in classical art that rejects his bold and creative works, labelling them ugly and uncomfortable. It is clear that the artist’s relationship with the land is much stronger than with the society that rejects him, as while nature presents inspiration and beauty, people present judgement, criticism and misunderstanding.
Heart-warmingly, his tortured soul finds comfort and acceptance in his close friendship with fellow post-impressionist artist, Paul Gauguin. His competitor appears to bring out the lively creative spirit in Van Gogh that society rejects, but still criticises his artistic style of rushing works and layering colour upon colour. Unfortunately, though, this close painting partnership does not last, causing a mental breakdown in Van Gogh resulting in one of the most famous self-mutilations in history.
Director Julian Schnabel creates an unassuming portrait of the mentally tortured artist, successfully steering clear of a pretentious depiction that could be found in its occasional experimental features. At points where Van Gogh feels overwhelmed by the world, Schnabel interprets these breakdowns through visual and audio collages that are disconcertingly layered over each other. Van Gogh’s isolation from the world around him is further emphasised through a clever use of accents and languages that keeps him separated from those around him.
Schnabel’s choice of uncomfortable close-ups puts the audience intimately and uncomfortably close to many of the actors’ faces. This is combined with front-on shots that see the characters talking directly into the camera, switching between Vincent’s perspective and those with which he is interacting. These techniques skilfully place the audience directly in the middle of the characters’ conversations, drawing the audience into Van Gogh’s world.
Just like Van Gogh’s artworks, the visuals of At Eternity’s Gate are mesmerising. The never-ending French landscape of Arles that transfixed and inspired the talented artist is still a delight for modern audiences with its fields of golden-yellow wheat and fruit orchards in blossom.
Time and time again Willem Dafoe proves to be a critical element within the success of his films. This is evident with the 63-year-old successfully playing the much younger Van Gogh who was only 37 years old when he passed. It is a remarkable and compelling portrayal of an artistic genius tormented by self-doubt and ridicule. The talented supporting cast creates a colourful collection of characters with Ex Machina’s Oscar Isaac portraying the head-strong and outspoken Gauguin and Homeland’s Rupert Friend presenting the artist’s gentle and caring brother, Theo.
At Eternity’s Gate is a beautiful and somewhat quirky depiction of Van Gogh’s final years struggling to find his place within the world, successfully steering clear of both sentimentality and art-house pretentiousness.
At Eternity’s Gate screens as part of the Adelaide Film Festival which runs until October 21st.
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