Drawing on the final years of Vincent Van Gogh’s life, artist and director Julian Schnabel returns to the screen with this stylish and thoughtful drama.
We meet Vincent as he’s buddying up with Paul Gauguin, following an exhibition in Paris. Van Gogh yearns for the countryside: to quite literally work in a different light. Gauguin and Van Gogh pool their resources and move to Arles, hiring a large yellow house. The idea is to start a commune for artists, living and painting under the same roof. However, Gauguin and Van Gogh’s personalities are not compatible. They have differing views on art: Gauguin disparages the Impressionists, while Van Gogh openly admires Monet. They argue over technique – Van Gogh works at speed, Gauguin more leisurely. As their arguments begin to escalate, Gauguin announces he is leaving. In a state of distress, Van Gogh takes a razor to his own ear, slicing it off. Vincent is admitted to hospital, and his brother Theo (Rupert Friend) rushes down from Paris to see him. Following a brief period of lucidity, Vincent becomes ill again. This time, he voluntarily admits himself to the psychiatric hospital in Saint-Remy.
The challenge in telling the story of Van Gogh is that we know so much of it already. What Schnabel does is to look at these events from the artist’s point of view. The camera here is not a passive recorder, but becomes a roaming, searching, inquisitive eye. The angles of the frame tilt sharply, considering objects from Van Gogh’s perspective. The camera work becomes feverish, mimicking Van Gogh’s own restlessness. It serves to make the moments of stillness that much more resonant. As Van Gogh sits and paints in the afternoon sun, Schnabel hits us with the full impact of what Vincent saw. Moving away from the Impressionists, Van Gogh’s take on landscape is more than a view. The swirls of paint, thickly applied – this is painting as therapist and patient. Schnabel makes it clear that, far from the medical opinion of the day, creativity did not exacerbate Van Gogh’s condition, but instead gave him a stability and focus unattainable by the treatments he received at Saint-Remy.
As you might expect, Schnabel absolutely nails the moments where Vincent is working at his canvas. The palette of Nature – from a field of dying sunflowers, to the vibrancy of French countryside in full bloom – is expertly captured by the camera. The artist misses nothing – and in these moments, the film truly comes alive.
Schnabel cleverly avoids cliché by skipping past the gory detail of Van Gogh’s self-harm. We are only given a doctor’s sketch as Van Gogh un-bandages to show him the damage. For the remainder of the film, Schnabel leaves the injury as a physical and editorial blank space, without further comment.
Another difficulty is how to approach Van Gogh’s bouts of mental illness. By using the camera as an inquisitor, Schnabel manages to reveal the sensation of being inside Vincent’s mind. The root of Van Gogh’s mental illness is still being debated today, with theories ranging from bipolar disorder to schizophrenia. His erratic behaviour, whatever the cause, was definitely compounded by his heavy drinking. Coupled with a prickly personality, Van Gogh was always going to struggle.
Schnabel shows us the life of an outsider in a deeply conservative society. Van Gogh, sat quietly painting by a country road, is beset by a group of schoolchildren and their teacher. Their faces press into Vincent’s space, crowding the frame; uninvited, intrusive. The teacher, evidently not up on her modern art, rudely criticises Vincent’s painting and encourages the children to laugh at him. They tip over his tray of paints, as he shouts at them to leave.
Schnabel’s portrait of Van Gogh is largely sympathetic, although his bluntness made him unreadable to all but his closest friends and family. Alongside the moments where he is victimised, we also see times where his behaviour tips the balance. In attempting to sketch a farm girl, he tries to get her to lay on the ground. Clumsily and roughly grabbing her, trying to get her into the pose he requires, we see the fear in her eyes. This is assault, not art.
While Van Gogh had a loyal support network, Schnabel reminds us that Van Gogh’s world was dour, narrow-minded and bleak. During an interview with the hospital priest (a great cameo from Mads Mikkelsen), the priest considers Van Gogh’s painterly vocation as absurd. He leaves Van Gogh’s gift (a small painting) on a seat, turned to the wall. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Van Gogh found his best subject in Nature.
As the artist, Willem Dafoe gives us an even-handed portrait of a difficult man. Moving quickly between moments of solitude and mania, Dafoe makes both states believable. During the making of the film, Dafoe was encouraged by Schnabel to paint in real time. Recreating Van Gogh’s portrait of his battered shoes, Dafoe paints not a replica, but his own interpretation. The quietly placed strokes are a lovely moment, stepping outside the traditional biopic into something much more personal.
The film, in its final scenes, veers away from the expected narrative. Instead of Van Gogh taking a gun, and shooting himself in a failed suicide attempt, we are given an alternative argument for how he died. This theory remains controversial and open to debate. What it leaves us with is a sense of unease; this Van Gogh is not easy to pin down. The only certainty we are left with is the art itself: bold, challenging and profoundly unique. While we have normalised Van Gogh’s sunflowers and irises, there is an otherness to his work that endures. At Eternity’s Gate may tread familiar ground, but it succeeds in its determination to make us look again at Van Gogh’s art. In the end, Schnabel takes the side of the artist. Biography can only go so far. If we want to know about the artist, shouldn’t the art be enough?