Julian Schnabel is one of the world’s greatest contemporary artists, a neo-expressionist. A style of late-modernist or early-postmodern painting and sculpture defined by subjectivity and rough application of materials. This is critical to understanding the vision of Schnabel, At Eternity’s Gate is told through the perspective of Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) and like his paintings it’s extremely rugged.
There is a deep sense of dedication to the portrayal of Van Gogh, Schnabel and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière have said the reason why the decided to study and explore Vincent Van Gogh was because of a feeling. Carrière described it as if Vincent himself called out to him as his eyes feasted upon his works. It is a rapturously-tragic study of the human condition, looking into the artist’s fractured mind.
Based on Vincent Van Gogh’s life, we find him in his later years as he makes the move to the South of France, to move into the sunlight and away from civilised society. Covering his time spent in an asylum, Van Gogh struggles to keep a grasp on reality with frequent events completely forgotten. He finds peace and pleasure in painting, it’s an escape to convey feeling through the application of revolutionary new techniques to painting. Vincent shares an interest in Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) through him as a friend and his artworks, there is a strong sense of rivalry and admiration for two distinctively different visions.
The journey is told through perspective, there are no boundaries to the narrative – it is an exploration of the fractured by getting into Van Gogh’s head. As if we see the world through his eyes. The cinematography is beautiful, searing, rough-edged and is always moving and shaking. The close-up nature makes you as the spectator feel his emotions creating a connection through the art of painting. Willem Dafoe’s Oscar-nominated performance as Vincent Van Gogh is deserving of the win.
This is Schnabel’s most personal film, he stated “It’s almost like making a movie about everything”. At Eternity’s Gate’s gestural approach could be seen as a mix of impressionistic or expressionistic filmmaking with a concern for portraying the visual impression of the moment. Long sequences in the film are without word, this is when Schnabel is at the height of his experimentation in style but also it’s when we are most connected. They are able to Convey a beautiful world that surrounds the tortured mind of Van Gogh, as beautiful and a thing of wonder that creates a sense of joy. It is all about the act of painting, looking at a painting you see the image but also think about the construction and application of the process used. Schnabel is more interested in the application and structure of Van Gogh creating his paintings, with many close-ups of the gestural brush strokes applied. One of the best scenes of the film is when you see Vincent painting, it’s in black and white with the colours inverted to show the anatomy and depth his paintings.
The vision is vivid but told through a canted lens, with the use of a specially crafted lens to create distortion it conveys the artist’s broken view. “I am my paintings” and “A grain of madness is the best of art” standout as lines that truly captures the essence of the film. It is true a little madness is the best of art as without ideas that are different there would be no progress. The structure of the film is as Schnabel says “like walking through a gallery”, with each story being a vignette essentially. At the end it is the feeling and emotion you feel that leaves an effect on you but is subjective – as are paintings.
The film never intended to look like a Van Gogh painting, but overtime the colours trickled in. With the deep contrasting blues and yellow enhancing the sense of awe Vincent had for nature. It’s as if you are seeing through his own vision, those colours he paints can be seen in the real world although not naturalistic. The use of wide-angle lenses captures the surroundings but more specifically it enters us into Van Gogh as we go into close-ups that are distorted just like his mind.
The importance of sound in At Eternity’s Gate cannot be understated. The luxurious score is harmonious and sweeping with moments of melancholy told through strings which enhance the dire and troubling situations of Vincent as an exile. On the other hand there are moments of gravitas showing the beautiful nature of eternity and the optimism felt as Vincent strides through the meadows, joyfully.
At Eternity’s Gate is a beautiful portrait of Vincent Van Gogh’s fractured mind. Julian Schnabel, like his paintings creates a gestural film that captures a searingly exquisite feel to this distorted world.
“A grain of madness is the best of art”, a statement that is entirely true and is perfectly reminiscent of Schnabel’s masterful vision.
AT ETERNITY’S GATE IS SET TO BE RELEASED IN UK ON 29TH MARCH
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