So many attempts have been made at probing the mind of Vincent van Gogh — most recently in the oil-painting animation of “Loving Vincent” or a little historical meddling on “Doctor Who” — that it’s tough to imagine anyone saying something new about him.
Julian Schnabel, himself a painter before he found a second calling as a filmmaker, gives it a good swing with “At Eternity’s Gate.” Schnabel’s elliptical approach ultimately doesn’t plumb the depths of the painter’s unsettled mind, but his casting of Willem Dafoe as van Gogh is a perfect brushstroke.
Schnabel, co-writing with Jean-Claude Carrier (a French legend who collaborated with Luis Buñuel on “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”) and Louise Kugelberg, follows van Gogh through the time he lived in southern France, in Arles, and in the Paris suburb of Auvers-sur-Oise.
He befriends fellow painter Paul Gauguin (Oscar isaac), who talks about starting a painting revolution, and can’t fathom van Gogh’s insistence that he must be in nature to capture it. He deals with locals in Arles who taunt him, or think him a dangerous lunatic roaming the countryside. He begs his brother Theo (Rupert Friend) for money, which Theo dutifully provides in exchange for paintings he can’t sell.
Mostly, Schnabel shows van Gogh wrestling with self-doubt, the worry that his work can’t do justice to the world he sees. Schnabel does this in part by watching Dafoe’s van Gogh feverishly apply paint to canvas, and in part by having cinematographer Benoît Delhomme’s camera jump about to approximate van Gogh’s agitated state.
Despite a steady stream of van Gogh’s words, either in voice-over or sparring with various characters — including Mads Mikkelsen as a priest and Mathieu Amalric as the homeopathic Dr. Gachet — Schnabel doesn’t do much to add to our understanding van Gogh or his groundbreaking art.
What makes “At Eternity’s Gate” absorbing, in spite of its occasional tedium, is Dafoe, who finds in the painter the role he was born to play. Dafoe — who, at 63, has lived 26 years longer than van Gogh did — processes van Gogh’s desire to paint the world and his frustration that he is misunderstood and penniless. Dafoe gets closer to van Gogh’s ragged heart than anyone ever has on film.
‘At Eternity’s Gate’
Opened November 16 in select cities; opens Friday, December 21, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated PG-13 for some thematic content. Running time: 111 minutes.