"We were not discovered until 30 or 40 years after he died." So says Vincent Van Gogh in writer / director (and painter!) Julian Schnabel's new film about the Dutch artist, who died of a gunshot wound in the south of France in 1890
It's a clever reference, and not just the person delivering the line is Willem Dafoe who, 30 years ago, played Jesus in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. It's also a nod to the fact that Van Gogh's reputation (and commercial success) only fully flowered in the decades after his death.
At 63, Dafoe does not want to play Van Gogh, who was 37 just when he died. But the actor embodies something of the artist's mercurial temperament – he screams at a group of schoolchildren who interrupts his work in the countryside, and accosts a woman on the road, demanding she lie down so he can sketch her. He finds rapture in nature "I am my paintings," he says at one point, simply and succinctly.
Schnabel directs infrquently – his last film was 2010's Miral – but he's found a worthy subject in At Eternity's Gate. And while his handheld camerawork can sometimes be shaky enough to induce nausea, it's interspersed with long, still scenes in which Vincent discusses his craft or his life (or both) with various interlocutors who are directly in the camera. The film moves us most when it does not move at all.
These foils include Rupert Friend as the painter's brother, Theo; Oscar Isaac as fellow artist Paul Gauguin; and Mads Mikkelsen as a priest who suggests that what is Vincent is also art at all. Unperturbed, Van Gogh responds: "Maybe God made me a painter for people who are not born yet." Touché!
At Eternity's Gate Does not aim to be a cradle-to-grave biopic, and it will appeal to most people in the past; If you insist on saying his last name with the guttural "van-hockh" instead of "van-go," get your tickets now (Although, interestingly, no one in the movie says it way.)
But Dafoe's immersive performance captures an emotional state, as when Van Gogh, after cutting off his own ear, says a doctor: "I believe I have a menacing spirit around me. I saw him and I tried to cut him out of myself. "But in the same conversation he notes his art:" I can make people feel it's like to live. "
That he did