Van Gogh seems to be something of a hot property these days — which, of course, is not to say he hasn’t been in the past. But for whatever reason, there appears to be a resurgent interest in the Dutch painter that may reflect the madness emerging in the collective unconscious of the contemporary zeitgeist. While this year’s prior Van Gogh film, Loving Vincent, had a novel gimmick to sell a story we’ve all heard many times, At Eternity’s Gate has something less to drive interest in its premise. Director Julian Schnabel has collected a remarkable cast, with Willem Dafoe an unlikely but exemplary Van Gogh, and yet the film itself falls flat by dint of belabored precociousness and belligerently persistent shaky cam stylization. Much like its subject’s career, Eternity is bumpy road plodding inevitably toward an ignominious end.
It’s a story that we’ve heard before, told from a distinctively intimate perspective, but Schnabel’s POV gimmick often drags the viewer out of a film. Which is not to say that At Eternity’s Gate is a bad film exactly, just that its aberrant pretension detracts from the movie’s many strengths. Dafoe is excellent as Van Gogh, with Oscar Isaac an engaging Gaugin and Rupert Friend a convincingly devoted Theo plus a Mads Mikkelsen cameo for good measure. But the totality of the film feels like an exercise in diminishing returns, wasting its cast and some beautiful cinematography courtesy of Benoît Delhomme on a Vincent’s-eye-view conceit that fails in its attempts to intensify audience identification with the tortured artist.
Still, Dafoe’s performance adds a level of subtlety absent performances like Kirk Douglas’ in Vincent Minelli’s Lust for Life (1956). And Schnabel’s odd stylistic choices are admirable if not wholly successful, resulting in a film that certainly stands out from other works on the subject. But when the odd diopter shots with half the frame out of focus inevitably reappear, it’s hard to stay in Vincent’s head, much less the film’s narrative. This is a case of a director’s stylistic reach exceeding his grasp, and as such, it unfortunately compromises an otherwise respectable effort.
If At Eternity’s Gate may not find a place among the great films on Van Gogh remembered to posterity, it won’t exactly wind up among the marginalia either. It certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel by any stretch of the imagination, but fans of the painter and his story will find more than enough here to hold their interest, even if it probably won’t leave them blown away by its ingenuity. So we have a serviceable biopic that falls somewhere beneath Schnabel’s capabilities but is at least partially redeemed by its strong cast and beautiful golden hour tableaux (at least when the camera isn’t shaking, that is). Does that add up to a film that demands to be seen? Maybe not, but you could do worse at the theater this week.