Director: Julian Schnabel
Writer: Jean-Claude Carrière, Louise Kugelberg, and Julian Schnabel
Cinematographer: Benoît Delhomme
Producer: Jon Kilik
by Jon Cvack
I had recently watched Vincente Minelli’s Lust for Life (1956) about six months ago, not knowing about this film. For those who want a better experience, I’d suggest checking it out in order to better appreciate and fill in the blanks of At Eternity’s Gate. It stars Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh, following him from early in his career and up to his suicide (or murder in Schnabel’s case murder). There are three stories that I’m glad I knew of before - his close friendship to the firebrand painter Paul Gauguin who, alongside Van Gogh, were the vanguard of an artistic revolution; that Van Gogh’s creative pursuit was funded by Theo van Gogh; that Van Gogh slowly started to go insane, ending up in various institutions (especially after he cut off his ear) where he produced some of his best work; and that Van Gogh was considered a failure up to his death, his paintings considered gaudy and unrealistic (from my limited understanding, impressionism was at its zenith of popularity).
At Eternity’s Gate takes place in the last few years of Van Gogh’s life. He’s played by Willem Dafoe (who received an overlooked Oscar nomination for the role), who's aware that he is slowly going insane. The film opens up in Paris where he befriends the ruthlessly self-centered and self-righteous painter Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). Unable to sell a painting or handle living in the city, Van Gogh journeys to the Southern France countryside where his mind continues to deteriorate, landing him either voluntarily or compulsively into various institutions; all while he continues to paint some of his most famous pieces of work.
The reason I’d suggest watching Lust for Life (or at least reading up on Van Gogh’s) is because the biography is operating far in the background. The story is about the mind of Van Gogh, told entirely through his perspective. What we get is a handheld camera (a style I’m starting to love with period pieces; such as Soderberg’s "The Knick" (2014-2015) or The Favorite (2018)), where with frenetic speed and wide lenses it wanders around and explores the scene; looking for character to person to landscape. The frame is often half distorted and out of focus when in Van Gogh’s point of view (inspired when Schnabel tried on bifocal glasses), and what seems like such an easy trick, creates a wildly disorienting experience; feeling as though Van Gogh is trying with all his might to bring the world and his mind into focus.
All the while, Van Gogh paints with rapid speed; vowing to finish paintings all in one sitting as it’s when the muse is freshest. With great trickery and talent from both Dafoe and Schnabel we see the act of painting and the way in which Van Gogh would pile on globs of paint, creating what Gauguin described as sculpture rather than painting.
Taking inspiration from Malick (though being one of the few filmmakers to pull it off) we follow Van Gogh as he wanders the natural world around him, falling into the fields and staring into sunsets, most often shot during some of the most beautiful golden hour photography I’ve ever seen, and allowing us to fully grasp the beauty that the artist was so overwhelmed by.
It’s this immersion within Van Gogh’s mind that allows painter turned filmmaker Schnabel to pile in aphorisms about the creative process; something I imagine most artists can relate to in their pursuits; which only seem pretentious for those who fail to make a serious leap. And yet given Van Gogh’s story - dying before ever realizing even a modicum of success - they should serve to inspire anyone who struggles.
“I paint, as a matter of fact, to stop thinking. I stop thinking, and I feel that I'm a part of everything outside and inside of me.”
“I'll show what I see to my human brothers who can't see it. It's a privilege. I can give them hope and consolation.”
“Because my vision is closer to the reality of the world. I can make people feel what it's like to be alive.”
“Of all the miseries that afflict humanity, nothing maddens me more than the lack of money.”
“Sometimes they say I'm mad, but a grain of madness is the best of art.”
“I wanted so much to share what I see. Now I just think about my relationship to eternity.”
Everyone I know who’s pursuing the arts has experienced one, if not all of these emotions. They’re thoughts we often don’t share publicly, as it seems as though if it was truly how you felt, then you should be successful, and if you’re not, you either must not be serious or good enough.
As life further creeps in, and a new job, more money, a wife, child, or your aging relatives slowly creep into the pursuit, most are confronted with the question - do you have to do it, or can you stop and make it a hobby? It’s what makes the closing quote about his relationship to eternity so powerful; will we stop thinking about the adulation and fame and simply create for the very act of creating, hoping that honesty will allow the work to one day live beyond us, or remain forever yearning for that acceptance? In the age of cloud drives and streaming services, all art could theoretically live on for the next 7.5 billion years. We are all creating content that could and will exist forever, even if no one sees it now. It’s hopelessly naive, but it makes the alternative cynicism sting just a bit less.
BELOW: Why do you _____?
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