At Eternity’s Gate

The fever to paint

Film. Focusing on Van Gogh’s last prolific years, Julian Schnabel makes an anti-bopic where Art overcomes myth.

By Claire Bonnot

Who has never dreamed of being immersed in a painting in order to be filled with beauty? It’s the visual, sensory, emotion and intellectual experience that Julian Schnabel offers us, director of the movie At Eternity’s Gate. The American painter translates his artistic painting on screen since Basquiat, his first movie looking like a biopic, directed in 1996. Moviemaker who was rewarded several times in 2007 for Le Scaphandre et le Papillon  , he mixes again artistic performance and cinema of sensations.

Intense sensory experience where silence benefits Van Gogh's brush

Dazzling film

“I would like to find a new light to paint pictures never seen before”, Van Gogh explains to Gauguin. An artistic gesture translated by Schnabel with his camera’ moves that fit with Vincent Van Gogh, filming his frenzied steps in Arlesian fields, deploying its visual field dazzled by pervasive nature (and us as well), and often zigzagin at the pace of the passionate and heated mind of the painter with the ear cut. Then the audience is immersed in the paintings and soul of the Dutch painter- “I am my paintings”, he says to the doctor who put him in asylum- moved by the fever to paint and existential madness wonderfully played by the ambivalent Willem Dafoe, with his emaciated and transfigured face. The actor won Venice Mostra’s Volpi Cup and was nominated for the Oscars for his role, even though Van Gogh killed himself when he was 37 years old, whereas he’s 63 today.

Because the film is somewhere else. It offers an intense sensory experience where silence gives advantage to Van Gogh: Tree’s and grass’ rustling, the wind blowing in sunflowers’ fields and the light, majestic, from dusk to dawn. The film which is sometimes saturated and the zoomed shots clearly show the pure beauty of a world Van Gogh tirelessly tries to share: “My vision is closer to the world’s reality. I can make people feel alive”. Or how At Eternity’s Gate is the most claryfing anti-biopic about the artist’s life and work.

There already was Lust for life directed by Vincent Minelli with Kirk Douglas (best actor Golden Globe in a dramatic film in 1957) and Van Goth directed by Maurice Pialat with Jacques Dutronc (César award for best actor in 1992), but Schnabel’s intention is different.


Transcendental education
Drawing inspiration from Van Gogh’s life and adding his own feeling of painter, he explores in this film the origins of inspiration and of the artist’s role. The face to face between Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), Van Gogh and his doctor, Van Gogh and the priest (the puzzling Mads Mikkelsen) are fascinating, providing keys so as to better get closer to accursed and yet visionary artists’ fates. “Jesus was totally unknown too when he was alive” the character says, daring to use Christlike image full of perspicacity. Wavering between pain and the happiness to create, Van Gogh is portrayed as an Art martyr, willing to give his life, to lose his minde, in order to point out beauty and reach eternity.

New film to experience, At Eternity’s Gate is (however !) something to watch at home because, in France, it’s only broadcasted on Netflix.