Biopics of well-known figures are a tricky field of filmmaking. You have to justify why you’re telling their story, without falling into blatant sycophantic praise, it’s a balancing act of careful juxtaposition. Something Julian Schnabel proved he was capable of with his 2007 film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which looked at Elle magazine editor Jean Domnique-Bauby’s life after a paralysing car accident. At Eternity’s Gate tackles a more recognisable figure, telling the story of the final years of Vincent Van Gogh’s life, in which he struggled with isolation and depression in Arles France. Thankfully Schnabel has proved his skills in this field again, delivering a masterpiece worthy of Van Gogh’s signature.
Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) is a failing artist when At Eternity’s Gate begins, he’s ridiculed for his work that doesn’t sell, and left out of the elite Parisian cooperative where artists support each other fiscally. Were it not for his savvy businessman brother Theo (Rupert Friend) he would be financially crippled, and if not for Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) intellectually so. Its Gauguin who advises to the artist to escape the hierarchy in Paris, and soon after he leaves for Arles in the hope the countryside will reinvigorate his work. Shortly after arrival however Van Gogh encounters further creative block that leads to his alcoholism and eventually manifests itself in his depression.
At Eternity’s Gate doesn’t neuter Van Gogh’s suffering, but never feels gratuitous in its depiction of it. The misery is interspersed by scenes of implicit joy, like Van Gogh climbing a cliff face to look over a field he’s painting and becoming overwhelmed by his surroundings. Dafoe’s performance is masterful, a subtle examination of a tortured man who refuses to be victimised. It would have been easy to have exaggerated Van Gogh’s decline, but what’s on show here is far more nuanced and empathetic. It’s through these serene moments, and his interactions with his close friends that we gain a proportioned account of his decline.
The supporting cast mostly do a good job, with Rupert Friend as Theo establishing a believable connection driven by pathos, yet the same cannot be said for Oscar Isaac’s Gauguin. His ideologies are presented well, but there’s moments where a distinct lack of emotion runs through his performance. We are presented Gauguin as a blank slate, mildly jarring when we’re supposed to see this as the man Van Gogh was infatuated with and idolised without end.
Van Gogh’s letters are presented as narration from Dafoe, giving us insight into the artist’s mental state at that time. This trick is also replicated by the cinematography, with distinct colour usage replicating different periods in Van Gogh’s career. When Gauguin abandons him, a blue tinge begins to seep in and makes the small French town cold and unwelcoming. Similarly, when Van Gogh is deemed sane by the priest in Saint-Remy we are shown the French countryside doused in victorious golden hues. Paired with heavy usage of POV and close up shots, the film visually couldn’t bring you closer to Van Gogh’s world in the final years. As mentioned previously there are several scenes that are dialogue free, and because of Benoit Delhomme’s gorgeous cinematography its feasible to think the story could be told that way.
At Eternity’s Gate is a tough watch, detailing an outsider desperately searching for, and failing to find, the validation he works tirelessly towards. It is at once a brave personal story, and a meticulously crafted historical account. The performances carrying the film are mostly great, and the care taken into weaving Van Gogh’s artistic style into the visuals is meticulous. Perhaps Julian Schnabel should be the only person we should let direct biopics from now on.