There's no shortage of biopics about artistic geniuses. In fact, the famed artist at the center of "At Eternity"s Gate," Vincent van Gogh, served as the subject of another filmic tribute (the striking animated feature 'Loving Vincent") just last year. But director Julian Schnabel ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly") creates something special with his impressionistic, meditative portrait of the mercurial painter.
As a man, van Gogh (played here by the great Willem Dafoe) has always remained something of a mystery, and Schnabel keeps that mystery intact, never seeking to explain the painter's genius, simply wishing to imagine that talent at work.
Schnabel focuses on the painter's fraught later years, during a prolific period spent in the small town of Arles, France. We gradually get a sense of him through episodic snapshots of his tender relationship with his beloved brother Theo (Rupert Friend), who offers as much financial and emotional support as he can. We also see his friendship with contemporary Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), as the two engage in a philosophical dialogues about their diverging techniques and the nature of art.
Van Gogh's unconventional and innovative use of color and form allowed him to create landscapes and portraits like no one else. In the process he confounded both the public and the artistic establishment at the time. In one of the film's best scenes, he talks with a priest (Mads Mikkelsen) sent to gauge the artist's sanity during his time in an asylum, telling him that "maybe God made me a painter for people who weren't born yet."
Dafoe's stellar performance is good enough to let us overlook the fact that the actor is nearly three decades older than van Gogh was at the end of his life in 1890, when he died of a gunshot wound at age 37. He plays the artist as a man whose need to create is as necessary as the air he breathes. He's also desperately lonely, but as much as he desires to draw the world close, he can't help pushing it away with his sometimes volatile behavior.
Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme's constantly moving handheld camerawork alternates extreme close-ups with richly textured landscapes. As the film goes on, Schnabel and Delhomme bring in other methods to represent the painter's deteriorating mental state. There's overlapping and repeated voiceovers; sometimes the bottom half of the frame is blurred, as though we're watching the film through bifocals with the wrong prescription. The technique is meant to disorient, but can sometimes feel like an emotional barrier, keeping us at a remove. Luckily Dafoe's performance acts as counterpoint to those moments, always drawing us further in.
At its best, Schnabel's film immerses us in the artist's occasionally scattered perspective. It succeeds at doing what I wish more biopics were able to accomplish, giving us a glimpse into the process of a true artist at work. We're given the chance to stand beside van Gogh in a golden field in the French countryside, searching for the perfect light, and it's thrilling to observe the artist putting brush to canvas.
A most unusual portrait, "At Eternity's Gate" is an evocative look into the troubled but brilliant mind of a man who saw the world as no one else did, capturing the beauty and wonder in the eternal possibilities of the creative process.