****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
My Recommendaion: SKIP IT. I found this film to be an art house failure…a noble art house failure…but a failure nonetheless.
At Eternity’s Gate, directed by Julian Schnabel and written by Schnabel, Jean-Claude Carriere and Louise Kugelberg, is the story of the final years of iconic painter Vincent van Gogh. The film stars Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh, with supporting turns from Rupert Friend, Mads Mikkelsen and Oscar Isaac.
2018 has been, to be frank, a down year for movies, at least thus far. Yes, there have been some interesting and good films, like The Death of Stalin, You Were Never Really Here, The Sisters Brothers, First Man and A Quiet Place, but nothing that you’d describe as a masterpiece. Since it is now late November, the clock is quickly running out for 2018 to redeem itself. One film which I was very excited to see and which I thought might be the beginning of a turn around for 2018 cinema was At Eternity’s Gate.
The reason for my cinematic optimism as opposed to my usual pessimism or downright cynicism, was that At Eternity’s Gate had a lot going for it, first off I am one of those people who loves museums and can stare at paintings all day. I am certainly no expert on the subject, but I know enough about painting to know that a movie about Vincent van Gogh is right up my alley.
Secondly, At Eternity’s Gate also boasts an artistically ambitious art house director, Julian Schnabel, who has proven with some of his previous films like Basquiat and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly that he can succeed with daring and unconventional choices.
Thirdly, At Eternity’s Gate stars Willem Dafoe, who is an actor I greatly admire and who is unquestionably one of the more intriguing talents of his generation.
And finally, I had At Eternity’s Gate’s release date circled on my calendar because van Gogh is one of the more fascinating characters and his artwork and personal history are most definitely worthy of the big screen, especially in the hands of a fellow artist, as Julian Schnabel is first a painter and secondly a filmmaker, which one would assume gives him great insight into the mind and vision of a master like van Gogh.
With all of that going for it, and with all of my hopes riding on it, much to my chagrin, At Eternity’s Gate falls well short of being a great film, or even an important one, and the blame for that falls squarely on the shoulders of director Julian Schnabel.
As I wrote previously, Schnabel has made a handful of films, some of them were very good, but he is still not a filmmaker, for he lacks the skill, craft and vision of a filmmaker, rather he is a painter who makes films.
What Schnabel and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme try to do with At Eternity’s Gate is to transport the viewer into the mind of van Gogh, a noble and ambitious idea, but the sad truth is that neither of these men have the requisite skill or mastery of craft to be able to pull off such a cinematically difficult and dramatically imperative task.
A case in point is that in numerous scenes Schnabel and Delhomme use a split focus diopter attachment on the camera lens to convey a sense of seeing the world through Vincent’s perspective and eyes. What the split diopter does, at least in this case, is it puts the upper part of the screen in clear focus and the bottom half out of focus and off kilter, the result of which is a disorienting and ultimately annoying visual experience that does not propel the narrative or enhance empathy for the character. Using a split focus diopter is a novel idea, but the way Schnabel/Delhomme use it ultimately does little to draw the viewer in, but only succeeds in creating a somewhat frustrating and distorted view of the world.
Schnabel’s split diopter decision is more akin to a film school experiment than the execution of a master’s deft touch. The split diopter does not recreate van Gogh’s vision of the world, it only distorts our literal vision without any dramatic purpose or meaning. An example where Schnabel used a visual stunt wisely and a perspective correctly was in his 2007 film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, where he painstakingly shot from the perspective of his main character in order to put the viewer into the confines of a helpless and paralyzed body. In that instance, Schnabel was effective with his unconventional approach, but in At Eternity’s Gate, he seems to be trying to be unconventional and artsy for unconventional and artsy’s sake.
At Eternity’s Gate is filled with all sorts of film making gimmicks that tend to fall cinematically flat and feel more like parlor tricks than artistic vision. These errors, coupled with Delhomme’s frantically improvised handheld camera work, result in At Eternity’s Gate being, for the most part and much to my shock and disappointment, visually underwhelming.
What was so disheartening to me was that Schnabel of all people, should have understood that van Gogh’s view of the world should have been intensified through the use of the camera, not muddled with hackneyed optical tricks, in order to draw audiences into his world. Delhomme, who is also a painter himself, is simply ill-equipped to do what van Gogh did, which is make the most of the world he inhabited and translate it into masterpieces. How Schnabel and Delhomme didn’t focus on intensifying and heightening color and contrast in a film about van Gogh is beyond me.
I couldn’t help but think of the 2014 Mike Leigh film Mr. Turner while watching At Eternity’s Gate. Mr. Turner is about famed British painter J.M.W Turner and cinematographer Dick Pope’s work on that film is staggeringly brilliant. Through the artistry and magic of cinematography, Pope turns nearly every frame of that film into a masterpiece that could hang in any museum in the world, and by doing so showed us how the universe Turner inhabited then ended up on his canvas.
I also thought of Terence Malick films, most notably his frequent collaborations with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Malick and Lubezki use a lot of hand held camera work and much of it is improvised, and yet they are able to create stunningly beautiful shots using only natural light, Malick’s keen eye and Lubezki’s unmatched skill for framing. Schnabel and Delhomme on the other hand use natural light and a handheld, improvisational camera and it often times feels more like it is a home movie and not a major cinematic enterprise.
With At Eternity’s Gate, Schnabel and Delhomme visually fail to get us to fully inhabit van Gogh’s unique and precious mind and understand his post-impressionist vision and that is an unforgivable cinematic sin.
There was one notable bright spot though in regards to Schnabel’s direction and Delhomme’s cinematography, and that is where they emphasize that van Gogh wasn’t a visual painter but rather a tactile one.
When I work with actors, one of the exercises I sometimes do with them is to find a character’s “hierarchy of sense”. I ask actors to contemplate and experiment with what sense is most dominant for the character…are they more visual? Auditory? Tactile? Figuring this out can go a long way towards building a multi-dimensional character who uniquely inhabits space and time. Sometimes the script will give little clues as to the answer to the question, but not always, and then it is up to the actor and their imagination to figure it out. The best decisions in regards to this process, are usually the least obvious…and so it is with van Gogh. Most actors (and people) would assume van Gogh, being a painter, a visual medium, is a visually dominant character…but no…on the contrary, Schnabel and Dafoe wisely make him a tactile dominant person.
Van Gogh’s tactile approach to painting is driven home in the most effective sequence of the movie when Delhomme uses black and white to accentuate the point that Vincent doesn’t paint what he sees, he paints what he feels and he feels what he paints.
Willem Dafoe is a powerfully tactile actor (as an aside, Marlon Brando and Philip Seymour Hoffman are two of the greatest tactile actors you will ever watch) and he embues his van Gogh with those same visceral characteristics in a mesmerizing performance. Dafoe’s Vincent needs to feel the earth in his hands, on his face and even in his mouth. Dafoe’s Vincent tries to embrace the horizon with arms wide open, and when battered and bruised both literally and metaphorically, he clutches his brothers chest trying to draw love and support out of his heart, and later clutches his own belly trying to keep his chaotically vibrant essence contained within him.
Dafoe’s stellar and meticulous work as van Gogh is only heightened by the fact that one of his more recognizable roles was as Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant The Last Temptation of Christ. Dafoe turns van Gogh into a Christ 2.0, who doesn’t know if it is angels or devils who haunt his psyche and afflict him in the darkness and silence. Dafoe, with his versatile face and unpredictable presence, brings van Gogh to life with a palpable and frenetic wound that won’t stop tormenting him. Sadly, Dafoe’s brilliant work is simply not supported by Schnabel’s unbalanced direction.
The supporting cast are pretty uneven although they aren’t given very much to do. Rupert Friend plays Vincent’s brother Theo van Gogh and does solid work with the little he is given. Mads Mikkelsen plays a priest who questions Vincent, and although he is only in one scene, he displays why he is such a terrific actor. Mikkelsen, much like Dafoe, has a fantastically interesting face that tells a story all by itself, and he makes the very most of his limited screen time.
On the downside, I was once again baffled by Oscar Isaac’s performance. Isaac is being touted as a serious actor of great depth, talent and skill, but it strikes me he is a little more than a hollow performer. Isaac’s work as fellow master painter Paul Gauguin in At Eternity’s Gate is distractingly shallow and vacuously dull. I have no idea what Oscar Isaac’s work ethic is like, but his acting work and acting choices seem unconscionably lazy to me.
As for the rest of the film, as much as I can admire Schnabel for the noble failure of some of his less conventional approaches (like the split diopter), what struck me as so bizarre about At Eternity’s Gate is that Schnabel spends the majority of the film being, to his credit, unconventional with his cinematic approach such as his use of shifting perspectives and non-linear timeline and narrative (even when he fails, like with the split diopter, at least it is a noble artistic failure), but then at the end he makes an unconscionable 180 degree turn to the most conventional and standard moviemaking imaginable. This shift was so out of character as to be shocking as Schnabel sort of turns the film into a Raiders of the Lost Ark tribute to treasure hunting accompanied by an after school special happy ending. Not only is this shift dramatically untenable, it is also cinematically corrosive as it destroys any art house good will the film has tried to build up over the first 100 minutes.
In conclusion, At Eternity’s Gate was a disappointment to me as I had very high hopes, and no doubt my disappointment may be heightened as it is in inverse proportion to my expectations. While Willem Dafoe’s performance is worth the price of admission, the rest of the film is frustratingly not worthy. If you are a die hard art house fanatic, then I would say skip At Eternity’s Gate in the theatre and watch it for free on Netflix or cable. If you are a movie lover but your tastes run more conventional, then trust me when I tell you that you would rather cut your ear off than go see this movie.