On the big screen, Vincent van Gogh, the quintessential tormented artist, has been played by Kirk Douglas (“Lust for Life”), Tim Roth (“Vincent & Theo”), John Hurt (“Vincent”), Jacques Dutronc (“Van Gogh”), Martin Scorsese (“Dreams”) and others.
In his fascinating, if overlong, portrait of the artist, Julian Schnabel, a rich, renowned painter-filmmaker, creates a portrait of a more famous if also famously impoverished artist. In Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate,” van Gogh is played by look-alike Willem Dafoe, who also provides voice-overs. In opening scenes in which a lot of French people speak English, Vincent asks his friend Paul Gaugin (Oscar Isaac) where he can find “new light.” Go south, Vincent, advises Gaugin.
In 1888, Vincent finds Arles, his land of illuminated miracles. There, Vincent dons his artist’s suit of armor: a big wooden box of paints, brushes, rags and canvasses, all strapped to his back; a wide-brimmed hat to ward off wind and merciless sun; and peasant garb (he’s an art-making machine on legs), and he marches into the woods and across the farmland, battling the mistral and studying plowed furrows and painting his oddly alien landscapes and intense portraits. Vincent’s shoes have holes. He gets more use out of them by painting a still life with shoes.
He hates being called an impressionist, but allows that “Monet’s pretty good.” He also loves Goya, Velasquez and Veronese. We see the postman in the flesh, who will be immortalized by the artist in paint. Van Gogh’s landscapes capture not only what the countryside looks like, but also the molecules swirling in the blazing sun, the endless chatter of birds and circular buzzing of insects. Vincent wants so much to commune with nature that he crumbles a dry clod over his face, eyes and mouth.
In a scene out of a French “Lord of the Flies,” Vincent is pestered by harpy schoolchildren. In another he is befriended by a beautiful, middle-aged innkeeper (Emmanuelle Seigner), who gives him a ledger, containing recently discovered sketches that are now disputed by van Gogh experts. In an asylum after famously maiming himself, Vincent encounters another madman (Niels Arestrup) in the baths, who makes more sense than anyone else in the film.
Co-written by Schnabel, Louise Kugelberg and the legendary Jean-Claude Carriere (“The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”), the film also features Mathieu Amalric, Rupert Friend and Mads Mikkelsen. Van Gogh suffers almost as much as Dafoe’s Christ in Scorsese’ “The Last Temptation of Christ.” As a painter, Schnabel makes what can be assumed are well-informed and insightful connections between van Gogh’s life and art. Schnabel’s use of the shaky-cam, however, is self-indulgent. Why not just hold the cameras steady? Paintings do not bounce on gallery walls, do they?
(“At Eternity’s Gate” contains scenes of emotional anguish and a shot of a dismembered ear.)