This is in many ways an abrasive, wildly uneven film — raw and deliberately unvarnished in style, shot by Benoit Delhomme with a nervous handheld camera and lots of wide-angle lenses that mirror the darting restlessness and the uneasy perspective of a troubled mind.
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This is both a fitting tribute to an artist who rebuffed conventional painting techniques, and a disappointingly self-indulgent exercise, the efforts of a filmmaker whose affinity for abstractions often interfere with the story he’s trying to tell, and distract from the purported subject of the film.
Despite a strong, affecting performance by Willem Dafoe – who, even more than Kirk Douglas or Pialat’s star Jacques Dutronc, looks born to the part – the director’s pugnacious visual and editing style never impart the kinetic emotional charge of his 2007 drama The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
At Eternity’s Gate is a film made by an artist (“plates painter” Schnabel) less concerned with a painter, more with the way a painter saw the world. In its rupture from traditional biographical narratives, it does not merely stand out as unconventional biopic–it also comes close to resuscitating the idea of cinema as moving pictures.
Schnabel fuses form and content in a way that’s rarely attempted and even more rarely achieved; in risking the same derision with which Van Gogh was sometimes met, he transcends the limitations of the conventional biopic and creates something that feels genuinely new.
Does At Eternity’s Gate have anything new or innovative to share about perhaps the most comprehensively documented painter who’s ever lived? Does the world need another van Gogh biopic? Not really.
Schnabel, the director of “Before Night Falls” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” has stripped down his filmmaking in the most seductive way, all to achieve something audacious and elemental. He’s out to imagine what Vincent van Gogh was really like — to bask in van Gogh’s presence with an experiential, present-tense immediacy.
Julian Schnabel has made a heartfelt if straightforwardly reverent film about the last years in the life of Vincent van Gogh – acted by with all the integrity and unselfconscious ease that you would expect from this great actor.
Schnabel’s dream portrait of van Gogh is made whole by its star, Willem Dafoe, whose radiant intensity fills every corner of the film.
Schnabel creates a natural, immersive motion picture that conveys the experience of being, living with, and painting like Vincent Van Gogh.