At Eternity’s Gate is a biographical drama about the final years of painter, Vincent van Gogh’s life. The film is directed by Julian Schnabel, from a screenplay by Schnabel, Louise Kugelberg and Jean-Claude Carrière. Last year an animated, fully hand oil painted version of the last years of Vincent Van Gogh, was nominated for Best Animated Feature and told a very similar story – This movie, made with true life actors, was brilliantly done and I find the film indescribably touching. I’ve decided to deal more with Willem Dafoe’s performance and feelings about the movie, via a series of quotes taken from various places and the direction taken by Schnabel rather than the story content, which is already pretty well known.
At Eternity’s Gate focuses on Vincent van Gogh’s (Willem Dafoe) final years, which were spent in the South of France. The opening scene shows van Gogh chanting, “I just want to be one of them,” in a mournful voice. For painting is like breathing, eating or like drinking water for Vincent. The only person who had a clue about what it was like to be van Gogh was his brother, Theodorus “Theo” van Gogh (Rupert Friend) who also supported him financially as well as emotionally, despite his illness and heavy drinking. Vincent, the son of a Dutch Reformed minister, felt he was chosen to paint, despite the constant criticisms by other painters that determined his paintings to be sub-par.
Since van Gogh died at the early age of 37, DaFoe had his work cut out for him, as he had to shed more than a quarter of a century in age to portray van Gogh with such childlike faith and innocence. From the tugging off of his old boots to sketching them or lying prone in a French field, happily dribbling dirt onto his face, Vincent’s world was simple and full of beauty. In one scene, Vincent tells a credulous priest (Mads Mikkelsen), “Maybe God made me a painter for people who weren’t born yet.” Still, the world largely ignored van Gogh, putting him away in a series of asylums.
Director, Schnabel, captures van Gogh’s madness mostly from the inside: His shots are shaky and chaotic or slowed down to long, contemplative pauses; panicked when Vincent doesn’t know what he’s done, and blissful when he’s in the throes of painting or being held by his brother.
To portray Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate, Willem Dafoe needed to learn to paint in a way that would allow him to see the world through van Gogh’s eyes. “The beautiful thing is you become van Gogh”. Dafoe had only a cursory knowledge of the artist before signing on to the film. “What I know about Vincent van Gogh is probably what most people know,” he says. “I had seen his paintings. I can’t say I fully appreciated him before this. I do now.” That understanding came from painting lessons, under the tutelage of director Julian Schnabel. “That was the key to everything,” Dafoe says. “It gave me very concrete examples to exercise different ways of seeing, and I loved that. This movie may have changed me for all time — not only in how I look at painting, but how I look at things.”
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After van Gogh discharged himself from Saint-Rémy and moved to the Auberge Ravoux in Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris, he came under the care of the homeopathic doctor Paul Gachet (Mathieu Amalric) . His depression continued and on July 27th 1890, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a revolver and died from his injuries two days later.
I enjoyed At Eternity’s Gate immensely. Willem Dafoe outdid himself as the mad, depressed, alcoholic painter. I don’t think Dafoe has ever portrayed any role in the same light as he portrayed van Gogh. This movie is definitely not for everyone — as the scenes get pretty graphic as Gogh’s madness is displayed. At Eternity’s Gate is more of a literary piece that might prove boring to some. If you know the story of Vincent van Gogh and believe it to be a classic piece you can embrace, then go for it — Check It Out!
[At Eternity’s Gate is Oscar nominated for Best Actor]