Willem Dafoe is a Born Painter in ‘At Eternity’s Gate’

The fractured genius of Vincent van Gogh is sifted through once again.
By  · Published on September 5th, 2018

For a fellow creative, troubled brilliance is an impossible subject to ignore. One stares at the blank canvas or computer screen and screams at oneself to produce. The void of the blank page is a reflection of the creator’s failings, and if by some miracle, they do birth an object upon it, the chances of others and even themselves appreciating the result are slim.

To make art is to torture. No wonder filmmakers have been obsessed with Vincent van Gogh for as long as they have. In less than a decade, Van Gogh erupted with over 2,000 pieces of art. Most of which were created in the last two years of his life while he was mentally deteriorating in a small village in the south of France. Here he discovered the right light for his work, but even as his paintings grew brighter, his depression sunk further. On July 27, 1890, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest.

Willem Dafoe is the latest actor to creep into the painter’s headspace. At Eternity’s Gate appears to follow in the same footsteps as many films before it, attempting to trace the events that led to Van Gogh picking up that revolver. The usual imagery is there: wheat fields, sunflowers, fall foliage, Van Gogh’s head wrapped in a bandage post-ear slice. Director Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Before Night Falls, Basquiat) is determined to find Van Gogh’s art in his frame.

“Maybe God made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet.” A bit on the nose? Maybe. The reality is that Van Gogh’s artistry was certainly only appreciated by a select few while he was alive and that at the time of his suicide, he was broke as well as trapped in a mental stupor. His fame occurred posthumously after his sister-in-law published a series of letters between him and his brother in 1914. His paintings only became regarded as masterpieces shortly before World War I in Austria and Germany. Only when British and American collectors started scooping up his work did Van Gogh reach genius status.

In 1934, Irving Stone wrote “Lust for Life,” a biographical novel detailing the last days of Vincent van Gogh. The book was adapted into a film in 1956 with Kirk Douglas being the first actor to step into the artist’s shoes and Anthony Quinn filling the role of the more popular painter Paul Gauguin. Dozens of actors followed suit. Martin Scorsese was Van Gogh in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, Tim Roth in Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo, Benedict Cumberbatch in the pseudo-documentary Van Gogh: Painted with Words. The artist even appeared in two episodes of Doctor Who, “Vincent and the Doctor” and “The Pandorica Opens.”

What can Schnabel and Dafoe bring to the proceedings? Again, just looking at the trailer, Schnabel and his cinematographer, Benoît Delhomme, are placing their audience directly into the works of Van Gogh. Several shots spied here recreate the artist’s impressions of light. Only last year’s animated effort, Loving Vincent, has previously achieved this feat.

Focusing on an artistic gift as a curse is something that Lust for Life touched upon, but At Eternity’s Gate seems to hang its hat. Mads Mikkelsen is the priest confronting Van Gogh for his blasphemous visions. Is he an agent for God or the Devil? The simple farmers around him definitely don’t appreciate the liberties he takes with nature’s landscape.

Of course, there is also the immediate appeal of Dafoe and Oscar Isaac as Paul Gauguin onscreen together. Van Gogh severed his own ear only after confronting Gauguin with a razor blade the afternoon before. Witnessing Dafoe and Isaac as buddies is one thing, but anticipating that frightful encounter is another. My ticket is sold on that screaming match alone.

At Eternity’s Gate will not be the last film to take a crack at Van Gogh. Once reflected upon, all artists see a piece of themselves inside his tragedy. Every decade or so, another filmmaker will come around to work out their demons within the painter’s personal hell.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)