"...benefits greatly from the artist’s sensibility Schnabel brings to the film..."

Dafoe’s Performance is a Career Highlight

(120818) Is Willem Dafoe one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood? He has done outstanding work in over 100 films including both lead and supporting performances. Also he gave challenging, unforgettable performances collaborating some of the finest film makers on the planet (at least in my opinion) such as Martin Scorsese, David lynch , and Lars Von Trier.
He was an unforgettable Jesus teetering on the edge of insanity in Last Temptation of Christ (1988); he also played a Christ like soldier in Platoon (1986), a villainous sociopath in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), a noble FBI agent in Mississippi Burning (1988), a reckless psychoanalyst in Anti-Christ (2008), a compassionate landlord in Florida Project (2017), and even the Green Goblin/Norman Osbourne in Spiderman (2002). He finished three movies after At Eternity’s Gate that have not been released yet including Aquaman.

Dafoe also has one of the most distinctive faces in film partially because of his empathic eyes. However, the man does not get enough Oscar love. He was nominated twice, but he never got an Academy Award. With this film, it is possible that his luck may change.

A fellow critic once told me a story about when he saw Dafoe stand in the back of the, “Shadow of the Vampire” premiere, he smiled widely- apparently very pleased with his performance as a real vampire opposite Malkovich’s F. W. Murnau. Dafoe should also be very proud of his performance as the mentally unbalanced artist, Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate because it is definitely one of his best.

The film also has a fine supporting performance by Emmanuelle Seinger (she has worked extensively with her husband Roman Polanski) as Marie Ginoux, a café owner who often served as a model for Van Gogh’s (interestingly enough when he drew her he was often copying Gaugin’s style) . The way Seinger plays her, she seems fascinated by him yet understandably cautious. In real life Ginoux’s husband was instrumental in getting Vincent committed to an asylum.

The film has marvelous direction by Julian Schnabel, a very successful and well-known painter (ironically, he has made infinitely more money for his neoexpressionist plate paintings than Van Gogh ever did) Many people may have been exposed to Schnabel's work on the cover of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ album cover for By the Way. The painting is a portrait of his daughter, Stella, who is also in this film.

Schnabel’s previous films were all critical successes including Basquiat (1996) Before Night Falls (2000), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) and Lou Reed: Berlin (2007), which thoroughly examined the glam rocker/proto punk’s most depressing and underrated album. At Eternity’s Gate benefits greatly from the artist’s sensibility Schnabel brings to the film, and many individual shots look like paintings.
The cinematographer, Benoît Delhomme often used handheld cameras, and the roving tracking shots plus occasionally weird camera angles always kept my interest. Often Delhomme lets Van Gogh’s paintings speak for themselves.

The film begins with Vincent brazenly and awkwardly propositioning a potential model (played by Schnabel's daughter, Stella) for a painting (the film skirts the issue of sexual assault), then it flashes back to focus on his unhappy interactions with his peers. Vincent is an outcast in the artist's community and his village. Because of their subject manner and unconventional style, some people even question whether his paintings qualify as art. Perhaps it is because he is ahead of the tide. At one point he even says, “Perhaps God created me to make art for people who aren’t born yet.”

In a chance encounter he has his first fateful meeting with one of his few friends, Paul Gauguin (well played by Oscar Isaac), who was much more accepted in his time, and it turns out that the two men admired each other's work. Van Gogh and Paul eventually become housemates, but Vincent’s brother, Theo basically had to bribe Paul to live with and keep tabs on Vincent.

This all leads up to the infamous incident in which Vincent reportedly cut part of his ear off and gave it to a prostitute, supposedly to make Paul stay (This is discussed but not shown in the film.) Some historians might argue about how the incident is handled in the film, and some experts believe that Vincent’s ear was actually cut off by Paul during fencing and Vincent covered it up so as to not implicate his friend.

The film chronicles Vincent’s descent into madness and his time in an asylum where he did some of his best work. One of the most memorable scenes shows the asylum workers throwing water on a bunch of degraded inmates as if they were pigs.

When Vincent is interviewed by the asylum doctor who must decide whether he should be let out, the scene directly evokes the sequence in Last Temptation of Christ in which the Dafoe Jesus is being interrogated by Pontius Pilot. The film basically presents Van Gogh as an anguished, antisocial martyr who suffers so that art can advance.

You might be thinking why should I watch another Van Gogh biopic when the story has already been told so many times (one of the best versions is still Lust for Life.) The script relies heavily on material Van Gogh’s letters,  Dafoe read many of them to prepare for the film and the film manages to get deeper in the artist’s psyche than any previous Van Gogh cinematic portraits. This is probably the best film about a visual artist, and the artistic process of painting since Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse way back in 1991.

Directed by:  Julian Schnabel
Written by:  Screenplay by Jean-Claude Carrière, Julian Schnabel and Louise Kugelberg
Starring:   Willem Dafoe, Emmanuelle Seinger, Rupert Friend
Released:  111618 (American Release)
Length:  110 minutes
Rating:   Rated PG-13 for some thematic content

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AT ETERNITY'S GATE  ©  2018 Iconoclast Pictures
Review © 2018 Alternate Reality, Inc.