Dir: Julian Schnabel; Starring: Willem Dafoe, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen. Cert 12A, 111 mins
While filming At Eternity’s Gate, director Julian Schnabel shot 19 straight minutes of Willem Dafoe silently ambling through the French countryside. In the end, he decided against using the whole thing. “I like to push the boundaries,” he told an interviewer, “but at a certain moment, you don’t want people to say, ‘Well, I’m not in the movie anymore’.”
The resulting film, then – a strange, breathless, reverential portrait of the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh’s final years – is Schnabel holding back. As Van Gogh’s mental health ebbs and flows, and as he becomes increasingly impulsive and inconsistent, so too does Schnabel’s filmmaking. Conversations are layered on top of each other with slight, and then significant, variations, like a nightmarish echo. Lines of dialogue are repeated in voiceover after the action on screen has moved on. The score, a lush, orchestral delight, is suddenly, ungracefully halted. More than once, the screen cuts to black so unexpectedly you wonder if there has been a technical issue.
At times, Schnabel’s maverick style is invigorating; at others, it’s exasperating. Once or twice, it is completely alienating – though perhaps that’s the point. Van Gogh, after all, was alienated from the entire world.
“I feel like I’m losing my mind,” says the artist, who is no longer welcome in the French town of Arles because he frightens its inhabitants (the film was shot on location, in the very same fields van Gogh used to tread: Dafoe called the experience “flirting with ghosts”). “They say that I scream in the streets, that I cry, that I put black paint on my face to scare the children. But I don’t remember anything, anything except the darkness and anxiety.”
Van Gogh is constantly in a battle of some sort, either with himself or those around him – though the bleakness is curtailed by Dafoe’s vibrant, occasionally very funny, performance. The infamous ear removal – triggered here by the sudden departure of Vincent’s friend Paul Gaugain (an insufferably artsplainy Oscar Isaac) – happens off screen. We are privy only to the absurd aftermath, in which Van Gogh, head clumsily bandaged, explains what happened. “I wanted to give it to Gaugain with my apologies,” he says. “And I thought she would know where Paul was so I gave my ear to the girl at the bar, to Gabby.”
At 63, Dafoe is nowhere near the right age to play van Gogh, who died at 37 (though if you look at pictures of the artist near the end of his life, the casting doesn’t seem quite so outlandish). But there is nothing particularly precise about At Eternity’s Gate, which is interested in emotional rather than literal truth. It even posits a new, not particularly convincing theory as to how Van Gogh died.
Abstract, meandering and somewhat inaccessible, At Eternity’s Gate is as frustrating as it is profound. But given that Schnabel is best known for making art on smashed crockery, this was never going to be a paint-by-numbers biopic.
At Eternity’s Gate is released in UK cinemas on 29 March
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