It doesn’t necessarily take an artist to tell a story about art. But it can’t hurt, can it? Especially when painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel — his works hang in many of the world’s most prestigious museums, though he’s turned increasingly to writing and directing in recent years — still makes movies, in many ways, like he’s holding a brush.
That sensibility was always there in acclaimed previous outings like Basquiat, Before Night Falls, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. In At Eternity’s Gate, his take on the brief, troubled life of Vincent van Gogh is abstract, meditative, dreamily surreal: much less a traditional biopic than an evocative series of scenes and images rooted in Willem Dafoe’s fevered, close-to-the-bone performance.
Decades before his paintings became the stuff of traveling retrospectives and desk calendars, the Dutch-born post-Impressionist was famously a failure in his own lifetime; a man with too many strange ideas of color and form to ever be accepted by the establishment, and too odd in his personal life to be fully welcomed into the social circles of his more commercially-driven peers.
“I just want to be one of them,” Gogh says mournfully but hopefully as the movie opens — men like Paul Gaugin (Oscar Isaac) who is all real-world ambition beneath his bohemian hats and scruffy goatee. Gaugin goes where the muse and the money is; for Vincent, painting is a fundamental thing he needs to sustain him, like food or water. Only his beloved brother Theo (Rupert Friend) seems to understand the way his brain works, offering as much financial and emotional support as he’s able to provide.
Van Gogh died at 37, which means that at 63, Dafoe has more than a quarter of a century on him. But he portrays him with such childlike faith and wonder, it works. Whether he’s tugging off his battered old boots to sketch them or lying prone in a French field, happily dribbling dirt onto his face, his Vincent is a sort of holy innocent — you see the man Martin Scorcese saw when he cast him to play Jesus over 30 years ago in The Last Temptation of Christ.
And Vincent, the son of a Dutch Reformed minister, did seem to feel chosen in his own way. As he tells a credulous priest (Mads Mikkelsen) in one late scene: “Maybe God made me a painter for people who weren’t born yet.” Instead, the world largely ignored him or put him away in a series of asylums. Schnabel captures van Gogh’s madness mostly from the inside: His shots are shaky and chaotic or slowed down to long, contemplative pauses; panicked when Vincent doesn’t know what he’s done, and blissful when he’s in the throes of painting or being held by his brother.
If Eternity is hardly a completist portrait — or even a narratively satisfying one, really — it’s still gratifying to watch in other ways. Not just for the pureness of Dafoe’s performance but for the way it lets art be both celebrated and unexplained, still as much a mystery as the man who made it. B+