It’s pretty widely agreed that 2007 was an amazing year for film. It was a year that gave us such modern classics as No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, and on a more personal level it was the year I began writing full movie reviews habitually. One movie that gets lost in discussions of about Zodiac and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a smaller movie called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. That film, about the internal life of a man suck unable to move any part of his body aside form one eyelid following a massive stroke was nonetheless one of the year’s best. Though that movie was in the French language it was actually directed by an American. Specifically it was directed by a guy named Julian Schnabel, who had directed two films previously but never to this much acclaim and it felt like with this movie a master had finally emerged. And then nothing. Schnabel made another movie three years later called Miral which was critically derided and then nothing for the next eight years. This delay may have had more than a little to do with Schnabel’s other and perhaps primary career as a fine art painter who has by all accounts produced several museum quality paintings and works of physical art. But now Schnabel has returned and he’s now made a film about the life of a painter from a different time and place with At Eternity’s Gate.
The film looks at the adult life of Vincent Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) beginning when he had already assembled a fairly decent oeuvre of paintings but hasn’t gotten any real money or success for his trouble. His mental problems are already apparent but he does have the undying devotion of his brother Theo Van Gogh (Rupert Friend) whose moral and financial support has allowed him to remain a professional artist. Much of the movie concerns an extended trip he made to Arles, France in order to paint under a different kind of light than what he was seeing in Paris. There he becomes something of a town pariah because of his occasionally anti-social behavior but does have a few friends like his landlord Madame Ginoux (Emmanuelle Seigner) and he’s also visited by a fellow artist Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). From there we see him continue to struggle with his mental problems while also continually making iconic paintings right up until the end.
Confession: I do not know that much about art history, at all. Truthfully I can barely tell a Monet from a Renoir, but Van Gogh is a little bit of an exception, when I see one of his paintings I can tell, in part because of his technique of making the paint sort of stand out from the canvas. I also knew some of the broad strokes of his life story from here and there, in part because there have actually been a number of movies made about him including Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life with Kirk Douglas in the central role and there was Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo and just last year there was the animated film Loving Vincent which used his signature art style to look at his life story. It’s probably not too hard to guess why so many filmmakers want to tell this story; presumably they see something of themselves in the struggling misunderstood artist even though all of these filmmakers are more mentally stable and successful in their time than Van Gogh ever was during his lifetime. It’s also a meaty role for actors who get to both imitate a famous face and explore the depths of undiagnosed mental illness.
This time around Van Gogh is played by Willem Dafoe, which is a casting choice that makes sense given that he’s a red haired guy who looks a lot like Van Gogh’s self-portraits but also kind of doesn’t make sense given that Van Gogh died at 37 and Dafoe is almost twice that age at this point. That age issue isn’t overly apparent while watching the movie and Dafoe is quite strong in the role. Some of the best parts are the movie are the scenes where Van Gogh is relatively calm and starts talking about his various philosophies of art and life. During these scenes Dafoe reminded me a bit of his scenes in The Last Temptation of Christ where he was struggling to explain his spiritual angst. But maybe the fact that he sounds like Jesus is part of the problem. Van Gogh was not a kind and cuddly man, in fact he was so off-putting to the people of Arles that they passed a petition to have him barred from the city. His mental problems were severe and noticeable and the movie in many ways seems to be a little too in love with the guy to really look at the depths of them.
Really though whatever complaints I have about the movie have less to do with its take on Van Gogh and more to do with its pacing and general inconsistency. In format the movie is basically a traditional biopic: it looks at the events of the artist’s last years more or less in chronological order and without any sort of gimmick or anything, on paper at least. However the movie does play in some odd ways at times. Occasionally it just sort of diverges from its plot to sort of watch Van Gogh sort of walk through nature and observe things. It’s an arty touch, but I’m not sure it really works here and just sort of hurts the pacing. Other parts just kind of feel like boring and kind of stilted biopic fare. But every time the movie was losing me it would do something to win me back. It will include an interesting conversation or depict some key moment in Van Gogh’s life in an interesting way and I’ll be back on board. Something like a third of the movie didn’t really work for me, a third of it worked quite well, and another third was neutral and that probably ultimately speaks to how episodic it is. When I left the movie after seeing it I was pretty comfortable giving it a pass but it’s been a week since then and a lot of it has already kind of slipped from my mind. It’s not a terrible or even particularly bad movie but it does seem to be a rather inessential one given how many other Van Gogh movies are out there and how little this really seems to be adding. If you’re only going to see one recent Van Gogh I might even go so far as to say you’re better off going with that Loving Vincent thing, which at least had a cool visual style.
**1/2 out of Five