“A grain of madness is the best of art.”
I should go on record and say that I love every film the artist Julian Schnabel has made. Basquiat and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly are two of my all-time favourite films by anyone. I think it is his own artistic eye that makes his work so appealing to me. His paintings have always stirred me and I find myself in similar emotional territory when I watch his films.
His latest is At Eternity’s Gate, a story about the end of Vincent Van Gogh’s life. It advances a controversial theory that his death was caused by mischief rather than suicide, but whatever ones position on his demise might be, it is hard to find much to critique in this deeply emotional and eloquent homage to V. v.Gogh.
“This is a film about painting and a painter and their relationship to infinity. It is told by a painter. It contains what I felt were essential moments in his life; this is not the official history - it’s my version. One that I hope could make you closer to him.” Julian Schnabel.
Willem Dafoe plays the artist with his usual intensity and passion (he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance). There are moments when he makes Van Gogh eerily similar to his portrayal of Jesus in The Temptation of Christ, and there is a bit of a hagiographic use of the camera at times, but it isn’t cloying or sentimental.
This is a film that takes art and artists seriously and etched into the visuals and the story are references to artistic process and meaning. Schnabel does a wonderful job of telling the story of Van Gogh’s tragic last years, it is quite a dreamlike and meandery telling at times but it works with the films focus in Vincents mental state and general struggle in life. Schnabel also infuses the film with great visuals that give glimpses of the world seen through Van Gogh’s eyes. The locations were in and around Arles where Van Gogh painted and lived and this adds to the overall beauty and melancholy ache of the film. The film tackles Van Gogh’s disturbed mental condition well and doesn’t whitewash the negative ramifications of its effects on his relationship with the local community.
As I said, the circumstances of the artists death are drawn from a somewhat controversial book written in 2012, by Steven Naifah and Gregory White Smith. I think it will be up to each viewer to decided for themselves about the veracity of the claim about the manner of his death, but this doesn’t affect the film at all, at least it didn’t for me.
The film has a beautiful and melancholy solo piano soundtrack by Tatiana Lisovskaya, which adds to the melancholy and dreamlike beauty of both the artist and the film.