At Eternity’s Gate: Willem Dafoe’s Van Gogh, Companion Piece to Last Temptation of Christ

The life and genius of tormented painter Van Gogh continues to intrigue filmmakers of different generations and sensibilities.  In 1956, Minnelli directed Lust for Life, starring Kirk Douglas in Oscar nominated role. Altman also dealt with the artist and his brother in the 1990 Vincent & Theo, and in 1991, Maurice Pialat offered his take in Van Gogh, with Jacques Dutranc (who won the Cesar Award)

So it’s legitimate to ask: Do we need another biopic? Does Schnabel have new angle or insight into the turbulent artist?  The answer is very much positive, after watching Willem Dafoe rendering his strongest performance since playing Jesus in Scorsese’s 1988 Last Temptation of Christ. There are thematical and philosophical similarities between the two films, and Van Gogh himself makes references to Jesus as misunderstood Messiah, and the notions of inner sacred calling and necessary sacrifice for one’s convictions.

An artist making a film about another artist makes perfect sense for Schnabel, whose previous films include the biopic Basquiat, Before Night Falls, about Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Who else can better understand a creative artist like Vang Gogh, who broke conventions and traditions, lived in destitude, and died young in solitude, failing to get recognition and enjoy commercial success during his lifetime.

Unlike previous films, Schnabel’s is more sharply focused and less melodramatic and sensationalistic.  For starters, the famous, bloody scene in which Van Gogh cuts off his own ear, which scandalized viewers in 1956, is not even depicted on-screen; instead, we see the artist before and after the self-inflicting cruelty, wearing bandage.

Schnabel does not dwell on the theory (and myth) of creative artists as mad geniuses.  For sure, there are many scenes between Van Gogh and his doctor or his brother, in which he himself doubts his sanity, willingly accepting the verdicts that he needs to be treated in hospitals and spend time in asylums.  Here, Van Gogh is less angry, more tolerant and more upbeat: He accepts his status as outsider and madman as given. Half of the film is set in Arles, provincial town in South France where he was at his most creative and prolific. It’s amazing to realize how fast he painted (against all odds) and what a rich body of work he left behind. Visually, too, At Eternity’s Gate is more about “Sunlight,” sunflowers and open fields than about Van Gogh’s darkest sides: his quickly shifting temperament and social disorders, like unexplained anxiety.

Unlike Minnelli, Schnabel doesn’t pretend to understand–or to explain–the artist’s life. Nor does he claim to present all-encompassing biopicture.  Instead, the narrative, methodically but beautifully written Jean Claude Carriere, unfolds as episodes and fragments from the artist’s productive but short life (he died at 37). The Film could have easily been called, “Scenes from the Life of Van Gogh.”

Yet I want to justify the title, At Eternity’s Gate (aware that some will see it as pretentious, which it is not).  And here is another link to Last Temptation of Christ: A visionary artist and uncompromising messiah, Van Gogh paints because he must paint, and he paints subjectively what he sees, based on his belief that, “Truth is the most beautiful and realistic thing.” To demonstrate this approach, Schnabel repeats a crucial scene, in which Van Gogh meets a woman herding her seep, forcing her to be the subject of his drawing–he gets angry and violent when she dares questioning his motives.

Did I mention that Dafoe deserves serious consideration for Best Actor Oscar nomination?  It would be his fourth nomination (three Supporting Actor nominations) and his first lead.