The Fragmented Beauty of At Eternity’s Gate: A Review

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I thought for a minute that after Loving Vincent I would be put off from watching more films about the life of Vincent Van Gogh, yet Julian Schnabel comes out with a new take on the life of the troubled painter with At Eternity’s Gate. But there’s something about a mix like this that would only make a blend seem so incredibly tempting, and it’s made clear through the fact that Schnabel’s work had also been influenced by his own artistry as a painter, therefore his view of the very artistic process that would have allowed Vincent Van Gogh to become so distinctive would have that added touch of being told by another artist in that same regard. Schnabel’s mindset as a painter also adds yet another dimension to exploring the troubled psychology of an artist like Vincent Van Gogh, because it’s be difficult enough to describe what went on in his mind. But perhaps it would only be fitting enough that the film about his own artistic vision would be equally baffling in that same measure and if there were anything else that allowed At Eternity’s Gate to become so mesmerizing, it would already come forward in Willem Dafoe’s portrayal of the artist.

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The film starts off with Vincent Van Gogh saying that he wants to paint someone. We don’t quite know what is the reasoning behind it, but it’s also a moment that we come back to because of what it speaks about Vincent Van Gogh’s mind. He is portrayed by Willem Dafoe, in a performance that grapples through where he finds his inspirations – big and small, as we also enter his own troubled mind. At Eternity’s Gate does not follow a particularly straightforward narrative, but among the many reasons as to why it still remains a wholly engaging watch is because of the fact that these fragments all feel important towards understanding what has also come to define what made Van Gogh’s artistic process so troubling too. It’s clear that Schnabel understands where Van Gogh is finding inspiration out of a rather minimal form of beauty, to that point he’ll reject telling this story in that straightforward narrative because that’s the manner in which inspiration truly finds itself flowing – there’s no limit and abiding by story structure obstructs that.

From the first frame alone, it would already stand out that the film is shot in a very odd manner – something that was intended on director Julian Schnabel’s end as a means of getting you to look at the world through the perspective of the troubled Vincent Van Gogh. Despite this, there’s a clear beauty present to what it also adds to the performance of Willem Dafoe, which is without doubt the film’s most gratifying aspect – because Dafoe’s recital still feels every bit as troubled and tormented as one would imagine an artist like Vincent Van Gogh to be. But there’s also a feeling of tragedy coming forward in At Eternity’s Gate and how Julian Schnabel chose to tell this story, evoking what it felt like to see the world the way in which Vincent Van Gogh had done so. It’s a film that seems broken apart, much like the mindset of Vincent Van Gogh himself, almost in a very perfect sense at that, and the role of Willem Dafoe also speaks great volumes as to what comes forth in that period of time.

Yet another thing that strikes me in the same way that I know Schnabel’s biopic of Jean-Michel Basquiat had struck me. Everything about At Eternity’s Gate feels too far closed into the way that Vincent Van Gogh’s artistic process to that point it almost seems as if he were condemning the artist – something else that took me out from Basquiat. Obvious historical revisionism can be noted, especially in the film’s often redundant third act, but I also feel like there’s something else about the way that Schnabel looks down on Van Gogh that feels so weirdly off-putting too. Playing upon a virtually structureless narrative, there’s also a point to which it also feels so difficult to truly be immersed within what Schnabel had intended to convey with the story of Vincent Van Gogh on the screen. Maybe there’s even something beautiful in the tragedy that came forth, but the obvious revisionism also does not feel appropriate especially in context.

There’s a whole lot to admire about At Eternity’s Gate especially in how Julian Schnabel sinks you right into the troubled mindset of Vincent Van Gogh, but everything is made even more powerful thanks to Willem Dafoe’s performance. It’s not particularly easy to make the perfect biopic about a troubling figure much like Vincent Van Gogh, yet coming down to the bones of what allowed his creative process to flow in the manner to which it did would also be an interesting place to start. It’d be easy enough to admire that Julian Schnabel knows where to find his footing, but like Van Gogh himself, he also does not know where to go. That’s the beauty of what made the search for inspiration so immersive, but also incredibly tragic, seeing one painter telling a story of another painter. Yet maybe that’s also what makes that title so haunting, because so much of one thing can also be found right at eternity’s gate you would never know how to try and capture it.


Watch the trailer right here.

All images via CBS Films.


Directed by Julian Schnabel
Screenplay by Jean-Claude Carrière, Julian Schnabel, Louise Kugelberg
Produced by Jon Kilik
Starring Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Oscar Isaac
Release Date: November 16, 2018
Running Time: 110 minutes

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