- Julian Schnabel
- Run Time
- 1 hour and 51 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
Then he went indoors, but again such a crowd collected that it was impossible for them even to eat a meal. When his relatives heard of this, they set out to take charge of him, for people were saying, “He must be mad!”
With its theology-related title, At Eternity’s Gate should appeal to fans of the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. This is the fourth film about the artist that I have seen, beginning with Vincent Minnelli’s Lust for Life way back in 1956, which stressed the misunderstood and tormented artist aspect of the artist’s life. Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo (1991), as its name indicates focuses upon the relation of the two brothers. Last year’s fabulously hand-painted animated Loving Vincent was couched like a mystery with the son of a man painted by Vincent journeying to Auvers-sur-Oise to understand the painter and how the mystery surrounding his death.
|This latest film about van Gogh, which director Julian Schnabel co-wrote with Jean-Claude Carriere and Louis Kugelberg,, is not a full biography because it deals with just the last portion of his life. The director, himself a painter with works displayed in major museums, has said about his film, “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
After a prologue in which Vincent (Willem Dafoe) asks a young woman to pose for a sketch, the story opens in Paris at a meeting of non-establishment artists arguing about setting up a commune. The disdainful Paul Gauguin Oscar Isaac) abruptly leaves, followed by Vincent who strikes up a conversation, telling him, “I want to find a new light for paintings we haven’t yet seen!” Gauguin suggests he goes South.
Vincent follows his advice, but first there is little of the fabled light of the area, it being February with the cold winds of Winter blowing across a field. It is a memorable image, a large brown field of dead sun flowers, some still standing atop tall stalks. Spring comes, and Vincent is out and about with his portable easel and box of paints. While painting the exposed twisted roots of a tree a troupe of school children come by. Despite their teacher’s call, they run to see what the painter is doing. They are surprised that he is painting just the roots of the tree, and the ignorant teacher makes matters worse by her remarks. Vincent angrily runs them off. Already unpopular, he finds himself stoned by some boys. He catches one, but is seized by a man, the artist winding up in a hospital where the intern doctor seeks to deal with his outbreaks of madness.
Supported by Vincent’s brother Theo (Rupert Friend), Gauguin finally joins Vincent for what the latter hopes will be the beginning of a long association and the germ of a community of artists. However, the two temperamental artists cannot get along, Gauguin attacking his companion’s method and style of painting—he paints too fast, and he applies so much paint that it looks more like a sculpture than a painting. Even had Vincent’s mad act of mutilating his ear—which is not shown—not occurred, their relationship was doomed.
Schnabel covers these and many other biographical details but spends more time with the hand-held camera of his cinemaphotographer Benoit Delhomme. There are frequent black screen interludes during which we hear he artist’s voice. He says of the filed which he gazes at and wanders through, “When I face a flat landscape, “I see nothing but eternity. Am I the only one who sees it?” Schnabel seems interested in getting us to see what Vincent sees, the camera often showing his point of view.
Sometimes it points straight down at his feet as they take him through a field or along a path. Often the lower part and edges of the frame are blurred. That he sees “eternity,” or significance, we see in the scene in which he is inside taking off his shoes. Suddenly, he is sketching and then painting them—ordinary old shoes that most people would ignore, or, as they regarded so many of the artist’s works, as “ugly.” But most of all, we see that the artist is enthused with Nature and its beauty. Like the writers of the Psalms, he sees divinity in its vibrant colors that he replicates in his painting style.
In the asylum where Vincent spent the last weeks of his life the priest (Mads Mikkelsen) who is to evaluate his fitness in regard to his release looks at one of the artist’s small paintings as they talk. It is a small canvass of two rabbits in a colorful yellow and green field. Even before the cleric declares it is ugly, he shows by his several glances that it is repugnant to him.
That conversation is important for people of faith because it makes explicit the artist’s spiritual outlook on the world. Earlier Vincent had identified with the world’s outsiders, “I just wish I could be one of them…” He went on to speak about going about ordinary mundane affairs, longing to fit in, rather than stand out. He also described his act of painting as making him feel a part of everything, inside and outside of himself. To the priest he draws parallels between Jesus and himself. “No one knew he was alive until 30 years afterward.” Mentioning how careful Jesus had to be while being interviewed by Pilate, he says, “I too have to be careful what I say to you.” He might also have pointed out that Jesus was charged with madness. (Though only in Mark’s gospel—was this too sensitive a subject for the other writers to mention?)
In his painting which gives its name to this film, Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate) van Gogh depicts an old man burying his eyes in his hands as he sits in a chair, hence the first part of the title “Sorrowing Old Man.” But the second part of the title “At Eternity’s Gate” takes us beyond the sorrow, the painter showing his faith in God and a hereafter. He commented on a print based on the work:
“It seems to me that a painter has a duty to try to put an idea into his work. I was trying to say this in this print — but I can’t say it as beautifully, as strikingly as reality, of which this is only a dim reflection seen in a dark mirror — that it seems to me that one of the strongest pieces of evidence for the existence of ‘something on high’ in which Millet believed, namely in the existence of a God and an eternity, is the unutterably moving quality that there can be in the expression of an old man like that, without his being aware of it perhaps, as he sits so quietly in the corner of his hearth. At the same time something precious, something noble, that can’t be meant for the worms. … This is far from all theology — simply the fact that the poorest woodcutter, heath farmer or miner can have moments of emotion and mood that give him a sense of an eternal home that he is close to.”
My notes of the interview by the priest are jumbled because of trying to write in the dark, but as I recall, Vincent’s most notable words are, “Maybe God made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet. Life is for sowing. The harvest is not here yet.” Immediately I thought of the tear-inducing excerpt from Dr. Who that many fans have posted on You Tube in which an art expert is induced to declare the Dutchman as the “world’s greatest artist” within ear shot of the artist himself.
The director admits to using conjecture, which we see in two incidents. Along with Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s in their Loving Vincent, Schnabel accepts the speculation that Vincent did not commit suicide but was murdered by a local youth. This is still in dispute among van Gogh scholars, as is the conclusion that van Gogh did draw the sketches in a drawing book that Madame Ginoux gave him in Arles. His doctor supposedly returned it to her, and she shelved it without looking at it. It was only decades later that the 65 drawings were discovered, and in the 21st century published as Vincent van Gogh: The Lost Arles Sketchbook. However, the Vincent van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has declared that the drawings are all fakes. I guess Schnabel preferred the more romantic, as well as ironic, fiction of the valuable sketches lying on the shelve undiscovered for all those years.
Regardless of the truth of the above two sequences, Schnabel provides us with a wonderful exploration of art and the world as seen through the eyes of a sensitive genius who hugely influenced us all to see the world as full of the beauty and the holiness of the divine. That he was haunted by madness is both a tragedy and a portal into a vision that others would appreciate after his death. In reference to his statement above, he did the sowing, and generations since have been blessed with the reaping. This is a film worth traveling many miles to see, giving you a deeper appreciation of this creator of so much beauty. Like Mozart, he would not reach 40, but what a legacy he left to the world!
Note: For a beautifully illustrated article on the artist go to Wikipedia’s “Vincent van Gogh“.
This review will be in the January issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.