'At Eternity's Gate' Review: The Final Years of Vincent van Gogh

Updated on September 18, 2019
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Lori loves cinematic drama and to write movie reviews. She's no Siskel and Ebert but she has her own style. See you at the box office.

I wanted so much to share what I see. Now I just think about my relationship to eternity."

— Vincent van Gogh, At Eternity's Gate

The illustrious Dutch artist, Vincent van Gogh, painter of such works as The Starry Night and Sunflowers, was a driven and passionate artist, as well as a broken soul, tortured and blessed by mental illness as can be seen in Julian Schnabel's At Eternity's Gate, starring four-time Academy Award-nominated actor Willem Dafoe. The 2018 movie tracks the last year and a half of Van Gogh's life in Arles, France where his mental illness progressed and his art became more vibrant and intense than ever. His work during this period became his most celebrated.

This film is a gem and worth watching, though it does have its drawbacks. I had to watch it twice to decide how I felt about it. I admit, during my first viewing, I nodded off a few times due to the late hour and sometimes slow pace. I'm glad I watched it a second time so I could view it in its entirety and catch more details. I went on to watch the film a third time, I liked it so much.

Multiple sources say, "This is not a forensic biography, but rather scenes based on Vincent van Gogh’s (Academy Award Nominee Willem Dafoe) letters, common agreement about events in his life that present as facts, hearsay and moments that are just plain invented."

Direction and Cinematography

Director Julian Schnabel, filmmaker and a notable yet often criticized artist in his own right, also co-wrote the film with Jean-Claude Carrière and Louise Kugelberg. Schnabel's collaboration with French cinematographer Benoît Delhomme (also a painter) captures Vincent's point of view and the many moods or situations that are going on through some interesting camera work. The brilliance of light and vibrant color dominates many of the outdoor scenes where Vincent is alone, walking through wheat fields, rural roads, and scenic countryside with his easel, paints, and canvas on his back. There is an especially spectacular scene in which we see Vincent's feet walking through tall wheat. Delhomme creates a special effect of the grass waving in patterns. It's really hard to describe.

Delhomme's work is very intimate, uncomfortably so at times, for me.

Says Delhomme, "I think we wanted the camera to be a character in the film. Many times, we wanted the camera to be Willem Dafoe, to be Van Gogh. I've never been on a film where the camera stayed so much on the main character. At other times the camera may be what he is looking at, what he is seeing."1

There is one time where Vincent says, "I'd like to find a new light. A new light for paintings we haven't yet seen." So all the play with light in the film connects to that statement of Vincent's.

There are times when the camera blurs scenes around the peripheral of the shot. Delhomme plays with color, one minute scenes are washed out, nearly colorless and morose, the next stunning intense color that depicts the mood of the scene.

Many of the scenes involve one on one conversations between Vincent and important characters, with the camera nose-to-nose on them while they talk. I found it very uncomfortable. If felt like when someone you're conversing with steps into your space just inches from your face. Most of the time these are long conversations and I squirmed through them. These scenes are Vincent's perspective.

There are times when the movie is slow and drawn out, but thankfully it's only a little over an hour long. It is also disparate and disjointed in many places.

I didn't care about beauty. I didn't care if the frame was perfect. I cared about the soul of the shot—and Van Gogh's soul."

— Benoît Delhomme, Cinematographer At Eternity's Gate, 2018 Interview for No Film School

The movie, in a sense, is a mirror of you, as well. I’m trying to reboot people’s perceptions.”

— Julian Schnabel, Director of At Eternity's Gate

Dafoe's Van Gogh

The best thing about this movie was Willem Dafoe's portrayal of Vincent. I did not see an actor playing a role. I did not see Dafoe. I saw vulnerable, tormented, frustrated, romantic Vincent. Despite the fact that Vincent was in his late 30s at this season of his life, and Dafoe is in his early 60s, it works splendidly. Vincent van Gogh led a hard life due to mental illness, poverty, and much rejection of his work by others. Dafoe's soulful eyes were captivating whether deeply sad or brilliant with joy. The deep lines etching his eyes and face mark his intensity and world-worn life.

Dafoe learned to paint for this movie and did a fair job. Any good actor learns to walk in the shoes and the skin of their character. Like Meryl Streep learned to play the violin for her role as a violin teacher in Music of the Heart, Dafoe learned Vincent's craft.

I was riveted and moved to tears at times by his performance. Not only was his appearance a stunning likeness of the real Vincent, but he captured Vincent's passionate fervor for art, his vulnerability, humility, and mental-emotional fragility. I saw it in his eyes of joy and pain, and the way he spoke. I saw the world through Vincent's eyes - the bliss of his experience as he walked the countryside with his easel and paints on his back; his essence and sure destiny as a painter; the fear of a man who was losing his grip of a sound mind; the quirkiness of a man who marched to a different drummer.

“I never thought of using another actor,” Schnabel says. “There’s nobody else who could have done what he did.”2 I absolutely agree.

There were many scenes that grabbed my heart. The most striking was where Vincent's beloved brother Theo visits him in the asylum. The scene and dialogue are so intimate I felt privileged to witness such a sacred moment.

Two other scenes where Dafoe shines is where his friend Paul Gauguin (pronounced Go-gan) announces he is moving away and Vincent breaks down.

The other where school children rattle him as they surround him in the countryside while he paints. We see Vincent's emotional fear of abandonment and turmoil.

Many times I was moved when there was no dialogue or interaction with other characters. It was simply the look in Vincent's eyes of pain or discovery.

Dafoe received many nominations, including both an Oscar and Golden Globe for his role as Vincent van Gogh and a few wins (see the link at the end of this article).

I feel so well with you next to me. So well, I think I'd like to die like this."

— Vincent, to his brother Theo at the Asylum, At Eternity's Gate
Self-portrait, Paris 1887.
Self-portrait, Paris 1887. | Source

Without painting, I don't think I can live."

— Vincent, At Eternity's Gate

Other Characters

I will just touch on two main characters. Oscar Isaac played Paul Gauguin to a T. Although Gauguin was a painter and good friends with Vincent, he tormented the vulnerable Vincent with scathing and brutal criticism of his artwork, challenging him on his methods, use of color, subjects of his paintings, and locations he chose. He had nothing nice to say about any other artists either. Gauguin was an arrogant jerk and a bully. He had his moments of civility when they discussed art in general and the ever-present issue of poverty, among other things. When Gauguin tells Vincent he's moving away he responds callously when Vincent expresses his grief.

Theo van Gogh, Vincent's brother, was played by Rupert Friend. His performance was the biggest disappointment of the movie. Theo and Vincent were intimately connected in real life. Theo financially supported Vincent almost all of his adult life. He knew the brokenness of his brother and sacrificed everything financially to make sure his brother was taken care of. He was the only member of the family who really cherished Vincent. Theo was Vincent's closest confidant. He listened to his brother's rantings, tears, hopes and dreams and encouraged him every step of the way. However, in the movie, Rupert Friend plays a dull, wooden Theo. In the scene where he goes to the asylum to visit his suffering brother, a heart-rending few moments, it is Dafoe who carries the scene. Theo expresses his love in monotone, and has a detached countenance, while we hear the depths of Vincent's soul.

I think if Theo had been played with emotions and intensity it would have added far more beauty to the film.

Maybe God made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet."

— Vincent, At Eternity's Gate
"The Painter On His Way to Work." 1888. Formerly in the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, Magdeburg (lost by fire in 1945)
"The Painter On His Way to Work." 1888. Formerly in the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, Magdeburg (lost by fire in 1945) | Source

Not Entertainment, A Beautiful Journey

There have been several movies made about Vincent van Gogh, but At Eternity's Gate is by far the best. This film is not entertainment, rather it is an emotionally gripping journey into the soul of a warrior who fights for love, acceptance, and achieving his dreams. We see Vincent vulnerable as a young boy, but possessing a venerable spirit. I fell deeply in love with Vincent, not as a fan, but as a human being who sparred with his demons bravely and never let them rob him of his God-given passion for art. So much of his life resonated with me as a likewise warrior and found strength in his courage and determination. He said so poignantly, "I find joy in sorrow. And sorrow is greater than laughter. You know, an angel is not far from those who are sad, and illness can sometimes heal us."

Would I put this movie in my library? Yes, and treasure it.

I find joy in sorrow. And sorrow is greater than laughter. You know, an angel is"not far from those who are sad, and illness can sometimes heal us.'

— Vincent, At Eternity's Gate

Details of At Eternity's Gate

 
 
 
Produced
Jon Kilik
 
Directed
Julian Schnabel
 
Written by
Jean-Claude Carrière Louise Kugelberg Julian Schnabel
 
Cast
Willem Dafoe -Vincent van Gogh Oscar Isaac - Paul Gauguin Rupert Friend - Theo van Gogh Mads Mikkelsen - the priest Mathieu Amalric - Dr. Paul Gachet Emmanuelle Seigner - Md Ginoux
 
Cinematography
Benoît Delhomme
 
Music
Tatiana Lisovskaya
 
Rated
PG-13
for some thematic content
Running Time
111 minutes
 
Countries
United States France United Kingdom Switzerland Ireland
 
Language
English French
 
Box Office
Gross USA: $2,294,915 Cumulative Worldwide Gross: $11,005,713
 
*IMDb
Van Gogh's painting "At Eternity's Gate." 1890, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence
Van Gogh's painting "At Eternity's Gate." 1890, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence | Source

Other Sources

1"At Eternity's Gate: Portrait of an Artist." American Cinematographer, An International Publication of the ASC. Daniel Eagan. December 17, 2018. https://ascmag.com/articles/at-eternity-039-s-gate-portrait-of-an-artist

2 "Nobody Defies Willem Dafoe." Esquire Magazine. Ash Carter. October 2, 2018. https://www.esquire.com/style/big-black-book/a23024993/willem-dafoe-van-gogh/

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Lori Colbo

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      • Mark Tulin profile image

        Mark Tulin 

        2 weeks ago from Santa Barbara, California

        Well done, Lori. The movies about Van Gogh have been fantastic. My favorite was the one with Kirk Douglas. Enjoyed the Dafoe one as well.

      • lambservant profile imageAUTHOR

        Lori Colbo 

        2 months ago from Pacific Northwest

        Thanks Bill. Hope you'll give it a lookie.

      • lifegate profile image

        William Kovacic 

        2 months ago from Pleasant Gap, PA

        You sold me, Lori. I can tell you were really moved by the film. As good as the film may have been, it's your review here, that moves me. Good job!!!

      • lambservant profile imageAUTHOR

        Lori Colbo 

        2 months ago from Pacific Northwest

        Hi Brian, I hope you will enjoy it

      • B. Leekley profile image

        Brian Leekley 

        2 months ago from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA

        Thanks for the balanced review. I'll see this movie when I get a chance.

      • lambservant profile imageAUTHOR

        Lori Colbo 

        2 months ago from Pacific Northwest

        Hi Dora, it's worth looking for. Thanks for stopping by.

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        2 months ago from The Caribbean

        Thanks for the review. I sense your passion for the story and the story-telling. Good work. I shall try to find it.

      • lambservant profile imageAUTHOR

        Lori Colbo 

        2 months ago from Pacific Northwest

        Hi James, I am happy to have a second opinion. Hope all is well in the windy city.

      • lambservant profile imageAUTHOR

        Lori Colbo 

        2 months ago from Pacific Northwest

        Ruby, thank you for stopping by. Go to your local library and they will probably have it. God bless you, sister.

      • James A Watkins profile image

        James A Watkins 

        2 months ago from Chicago

        Thank you for this excellent review. We saw the film and liked it very much and agree that Willem Dafoe was the perfect choice to play Van Gogh.

      • always exploring profile image

        Ruby Jean Richert 

        2 months ago from Southern Illinois

        Your review of this movie was not only excellent, it was heart wrenching. I would go see this movie and probably cry like a baby.

      • lambservant profile imageAUTHOR

        Lori Colbo 

        3 months ago from Pacific Northwest

        Hi Pamela. Yes, I would strongly encourage you to view this film. I checked it out at my local library.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        3 months ago from Sunny Florida

        Rhank you for an excellent review of this movie. I will definitely try to watch it, as you review made it sound so worthwhile. I like van Gogh's paintings and his life sounds very interesting. Sorry to hear his brother's performance was not good. Thanks for the review.

      • lambservant profile imageAUTHOR

        Lori Colbo 

        3 months ago from Pacific Northwest

        Hi Bill, definitely worth watching. Thanks for stopping by

      • lambservant profile imageAUTHOR

        Lori Colbo 

        3 months ago from Pacific Northwest

        John, thank you so much or your kind words.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        3 months ago from Olympia, WA

        I would have loved knowing this dude. He was absolutely fascinating. Thanks for the review. I will definitely watch this movie thanks to you.

      • Jodah profile image

        John Hansen 

        3 months ago from Queensland Australia

        Lori, this was one of the best film reviews I have ever read. You gave both the good and bad points of the movie, but it sounds like the positives far outweighed the negatives. I have always admired Willem Defoe's acting, and as Vincent Van Gogh is one of my favourite painters, this is a must-see for me. Thank you for sharing.

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