#REVIEW: “AT ETERNITY’S GATE”
Review by George Kozera for Mr. Will Wong
As an Artist, Julian Schnabel’s works hang on the walls in some of the world’s most prestigious museums. There was even a sold-out retrospective of his accomplishments hosted by the Art Gallery of Ontario years back. As a Director, his unique perspective and visions had won him awards at Cannes, the Venice Film Festival, the Golden Globes and earned him an Oscar nomination. His movies delve into the lives of tortured or damaged artists and one, Before Night Falls, was Javier Bardem’s breakthrough role and introduced him to the world at large. Hot on the heels of last year’s Oscar-nominated Animated Feature Loving Vincent, Schnabel brings to life the tragic life of Painter Vincent van Gogh in one of this year’s most elegiac movies, AT ETERNITY’S GATE.
Focusing on the last two years of van Gogh’s life, the Movie opens with an off-screen, heart-rendering monologue in which the Painter talks about his lonely existence and just begs people, “Look at me!”. Penniless and his body of work unappreciated and unsold, van Gogh survives with a monthly allowance sent to him from his richer brother Theo, portrayed beautifully by Rupert Friend. His Bromance with fellow Artist Paul Gaugin (a turbo-charged, mesmerizing Oscar Isaac) is endlessly-fascinating to watch as they have wildly different approaches to art and even life itself and their infrequent scenes together cackle with insight and beauty.
The heart and soul of AT ETERNITY’S GATE can be simply described in two words: Willem Dafoe. Though technically, at 63, he is too old to play van Gogh who died at the age of 37 and in a career spanning decades replete with memorable performances, Dafoe’s performance here is stellar and bulletproof – a career high. He ensnares the audience into van Gogh’s life. His melancholy, his genius artistic vision, his quick to anger, his fighting the demons in his mind. We often follow the Painter through many landscapes and are thrilled when he finds something that inspires him to sit and put on canvas what he sees. Whether it be him taking off his shoes and we see how he starts the painting to its spectacular conclusion to his being inspired by the beauty of the landscape, the effects are glorious. Often times, in a signature Schnabel cinematic point of view, van Gogh is filmed in tight close-ups and the range that Dafoe expresses with his eyes and subtle facial movements is master class acting. One scene, where Theo visits Vincent, who is hospitalized due to his failing mental capacities, made me shed unexpected tears. The love these brother had is rife with sadness.
It may appear that Schnabel glosses over many aspects of van Gogh’s life. He never shows us the infamous cutting off the ear and we are never sure if some scenes are real or a figment of van Gogh’s deteriorating mind. We also walk away never knowing for sure if his death was due to suicide or a result of being beaten by young thugs. Personally I admire Schnabel’s approach and vision, even the scenes filmed in a bifocal effect where parts of the screen are never 100% focused.
The pace of AT ETERNITY’S GATE is languid and intoxicating; each brush stroke is awash in colours and emotions though sometimes undermined by the florid Score. It is triumphant and a glorious achievement with a performance by Willem Dafoe that should be studied by everyone who pursues a career in acting. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Elevation Pictures release AT ETERNITY’S GATE Friday, November 23, 2018.