So you can imagine my relief when At Eternity's Gate turned out to be a thoroughly engaging and surprisingly entertaining film. It is not like the typical artist bio-pics that grind my gears, but rather it is a unique and fascinating examination of an icon, whose legacy is insurmountable.
The film stars Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gough, and it follows the later years of his life and chronicles his creative processes as well as his insecurities, connection to nature and failing mental health. The story begins with an exhibition of his being rejected by a publican. When his work is deemed to be puerile and inane van Gogh seeks guidance by a fellow artist Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) whose own modernist work influenced the French avant-garde. While they subscribe to different methods and ideals they both adhere to non-conformity and influence each others vision. On advice from Gauguin, van Gough heads to the south of France and immerses himself in nature.
From there the film documents his thinking process (or lack thereof) and follows him as he encounters criticism and personal attacks from those who misunderstand him. Director Julian Schnabel comes full circle from his 1996 debut Basquiat (a biographical film about the post-modernist artist) and takes an experimental approach to telling his story. A variety of techniques are employed to represent various moments and mental states of van Gough's journey; from random monologue musings over a black screen, to shaky hand-held point-of-view camera angles and surreal horizontal multifocal split-screen. It is a strange and wonderful method of storytelling, which examines the various stages on his work, and remains humble without being heavy-handed or pretentious.
Dafoe is outstanding (as always) and offers one of his most delicate and emotionally fractured performances to date. He bares a striking resemblance to his real-life counterpart and connects to van Gough's fragile state of mind as earnestly as history describes it to be. The film is by no means an accurate historical account (it's more of a romanticised vision of his life) but it successfully dispels the myth that he was a raving madman. Instead is treats his mental illness with sincerity and compassion, depicting him as a sympathetic and passionate man. His ever-loyal brother – who was also an art-dealer – is also portrayed beautifully with Rupert Friend adding further weight to the story. In addition to Osaac and Friend the supporting cast includes Mads Mikkelsen, Vincent Perez and Matthieu Amelric, who are all good. Mikkelsen's role as a priest tasked with evaluating van Gough in the mental institution provides one of the films highlights and offers the one of its most lighthearted, yet telling, qualities.
At Eternity's Gate will test many people's patience with its slow plodding and meandering exposition, but for those who enjoy skewed structures and obtuse techniques it will stir the imagination and inspire creative streaks within. It is a richly textured exploration of a renegade whose worth was never appreciated at the time, but who would become one of the most celebrated and influential figures in the history of Western art.
At Eternity's Gate will be released theatrically in Australian on 14/02/2019.