There have countless films/biographies on Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh. So the question is why would any filmmaker want to make yet another?
The reason is hinted at during the closing credits when it is mentioned that writings in a journal n Van Gogh had been discovered in 2016, the year before production of this film began. Director Schnabel also said on the making of the film which is written by himself and French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, quote: “This is a film about painting and a painter and their relationship to infinity. It is told by a painter. It contains what I felt were essential moments in his life; this is not the official history – it’s my version. One that I hope could make you closer to him.”
The film is set during the final years of Van Gogh’s life. As most are aware of, the famous painter was mentally institutionalized at Auvers-sur-Oise, France. He died from complications from a gunshot wound to the stomach and he had also cut off his ear in Arles in the south of France. Making a film about madness is a difficult task which is often not rewarded with a crowd pleasing film. The result is as expected, a film very difficult to take in as director Shnabel personalizes and ups the angst on the painter’s decent into madness. Schnabel is no stranger to mental torment and suffering. His best picture to date THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY how a paralyzed writer completed his memoirs is a near-masterpiece in film endurance and suffering. Unfortunately AT ETERNITY”S GATE does not reach the same heights.
For one, the Van Gogh story is one that everyone is familiar with. To re-think that his suicide is something unexplainable might not please everyone. Watching a person’s decent into madness is not anything entertaining or pleasant to watch either. The film understandably lags in the middle with quite a few boring parts.
But the film is magnificently shot by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme in colours identical to the colours of the Van Gogh paintings painted in the open. In the film, Van Gogh was advised by fellow painter, Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) to go to the south of France to paint as it is so beautiful there. So Van Gogh travelled to Arles. Being to Arles myself, for the reason Van Gogh cut off his ear there, I never found Arles as pretty than the present after watching this film with the beautifully shot scenes.
The film also benefits from the cameos of Mads Mikkelsen as the priest, Mathieu Amalric (in THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY) as Dr. Paul Gachet who Van Gogh painted, Emmanuelle Seigner as the Woman from Arles, Niels Arestrup as a fellow inmate and Vincent Perez as the director.
What is marvellous to watch is Van Gogh at work painting his masterpieces. These scenes look really authentic. The display of dozens of his work on screen is a bonus for those who love Van Gogh’s work.
AT ETERNITY’S GATE is undeniably a difficult watch due to its madness theme but the film is by no means not without its pleasures. Just don’t expect the normal Van Gogh biography.