Capturing Van Gogh’s vision “At Eternity’s Gate”
“AT ETERNITY’S GATE”
Blu-ray and Digital copy; 2018; PG-13 for some thematic content; streaming via Amazon Video/Prime, FandangoNOW, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
Best extra: Commentary by Director/Co-Writer/Co-Editor Julian Schnabel and Co-Writer/Co-Editor Louise Kugelberg
VINCENT VAN GOGH has inspired several filmmakers over the years. In 1956, Vincente Minnelli and George Cukor co-directed “Lust for Life,” which starred Kirk Douglas as the troubled painter, with Anthony Quinn as Van Gogh’s on-and-off friend, the artist Paul Gaugin. In 1990, Van Gogh was portrayed twice cinematically; once in Robert Altman’s “Vincent and Theo,” featuring Tim Roth as Vincent; and in a vignette of Akira Kurosawa’s “Dreams,” the Japanese master cast Martin Scorsese as the artist, appearing inside one of his own paintings.
Now, contemporary painter/filmmaker Julian Schnabel (“Basquiat”; “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”; “Before Night Falls”) gives us Willem Dafoe as Vincent in an Oscar nominated performance for “At Eternity’s Gate.” Schnabel lends his artist’s sensibility to the final few years of Van Gogh’s life when he was increasingly tormented by mental illness while compulsively creating expressionistic paintings his beloved brother Theo (Rupert Friend), an art dealer, was unable to sell. Co-stars include Oscar Isaac as Gauguin, with Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Schnabel’s daughter Stella, and a cameo by French actress Isabelle Huppert’s lookalike daughter.
“At Eternity’s Gate” is a luscious treat for both film and art lovers, who will thrill at seeing Van Gogh’s most iconic paintings come to life onscreen.
This Lionsgate Blu-ray looks gorgeous (2.39:1 aspect ratio), with intensely saturated color, excellent period and fine detail, and the occasional deliberate distortion when showing Van Gogh’s skewed visuals of the world. Skin tones are true and the depth of field is impressive. The soundtrack is also very good, with a minimalist piano score by Tatiana Lisovskaya, and clear dialogue in both English and French (with subtitles).
The set includes three brief featurettes: “Made by a Painter,” “Channeling Van Gogh” and “Vision and Van Gogh.” Schnabel and Kugelberg (who is now the third Mrs. Schnabel) provide an interesting commentary, with the majority spoken by the director, who spends a bit too much time describing what we’re seeing on screen. He notes that the film begins with a black screen, which recurs over the course of the film, and is usually paired with Dafoe’s voiceover as Vincent. Schnabel says he did this because he “wanted the audience to feel close to Vincent … as if you’re in his head.”
Regarding casting, Schnabel says he “always knew Dafoe was right for Van Gogh.” Kugelberg, whose Swedish accent can make it difficult to understand her, and whom Schnabel identifies as an “architectural designer and interior architect,” explains that in the scene where Vincent is doing a painting of his shoes, Dafoe (who “learned how to hold a brush” for the film) made a lot of the strokes himself – “with help from Julian.” Schnabel says he wanted to “go against clichés” when it came to depicting the south of France, where Van Gogh spent the latter part of his life.
Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme wore Dafoe/Vincent’s shoes while filming his feet to represent the artist “walking through the seasons.” Schnabel says that during the shoot, he and Kugelberg would continually change the script, as well as repainting and redecorating sets, “because I’m a painter and Louise is an interior architect.” Schnabel explains the use of the split diopter on the camera lens, which made the bottom of the screen a bit blurry to suggest Vincent’s disturbed state of mind – something Schnabel got the idea for, he notes in one of the featurettes, when he accidentally bought a pair of bifocal sunglasses. Schnabel compliments his daughter’s acting skills. She plays a French housekeeper and manages a very believable accented English – “She’s a good actress,” her dad brags.
As for Dafoe’s screen work, Schnabel’s praise elevates: “I don’t think Willem is making believe at any time in this movie … It’s an incarnation, not a performance.” Schnabel points to the discovery in 2016 of a book with 65 drawings by Van Gogh as providing “a great story for the movie,” which shows Vincent filling a ledger with his pen and ink sketches and how it’s left on a shelf and forgotten. In the scenes where Vincent is sketching, Schnabel put his right arm into Dafoe’s shirtsleeve, so it looked as though the actor was holding the pen.
In the location scenes at the asylum in St. Remy, actual psychiatric patients were cast, which clearly “affected Willem and Rupert’s performances,” says Schnabel. Some of the dialogue spoken by Vincent came from his correspondence; the rest was invented by Schnabel and the third co-writer, Jean-Claude Carrière.
For another location shot, Schnabel declares, “If they know who you are, they’ll let you shoot in the Louvre!” By filming extreme close-ups of master paintings, Schnabel hoped to show that “up close, all paintings look abstract.” He adds, “A reason to do this movie was to teach people to close the chasm between painting and seeing … as well as to do what Van Gogh wanted to do: show the world the way he saw it … his vision.”
— Peggy Earle