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
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
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
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.