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Film review: At Eternity’s Gate

12 April 2019

Stephen Brown finds spiritual insights in a biopic about the artist

Curzon artificial eye

Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate

Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate

AT ETERNITY’S GATE (Cert. 12A) is another film about the painter Vincent Van Gogh, but placing more emphasis on his faith than previous biopics. Vincente Minelli’s Lust for Life (1956) did briefly explore the failure to follow his father into the ministry. Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh (1991) covers only the last couple of months of his life. At Eternity’s Gate has more in common with Paul Cox’s Vincent: The life and death of Vincent Van Gogh (1987). The effect there was to present a reflective character, one open to all life’s possibilities.

Willem Dafoe (Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ) gives us someone for whom painting is a form of contemplative prayer. Facing a blank canvas is like looking at eternity. The movie concerns itself with the period that Van Gogh spent in southern France. There he finds true light. In response, he finishes nearly 80 paintings in as many days, as if he must get his works down on canvas before the paint runs out. Or his life: he was only 37 when he died, possibly in a rush to reach heaven.

This frantic output comes at a cost. Standing, as he believes, at eternity’s gate, his occasional disruptive behaviour is triggered by those who seemingly bar the way — noisy schoolchildren, for example. Van Gogh’s subject-matter is wide-ranging, taking in fields, furniture, boats, people, the heavens themselves. What they have in common is the light that suffuses them. For the artist, it is one of transcendence, acknowledging that we are in the midst of holiness. “When I face a flat landscape,” he tells his friend Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), “I see nothing but eternity.” Doesn’t everyone, he asks. Clearly not.

As he remarks of some lines from Shakespeare’s Richard III, “I like mystery.” There is a preparedness to live on that astonishing threshold where wonder at what he beholds form the prelude to divine worship. But this, for Van Gogh, isn’t mere pantheism. During one of his times in the local asylum, in conversation with a priest (Mads Mikkelsen), Vincent draws a parallel between his own life and that of Christ — who is not just a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, but another like himself whose visionary perceptions are, as he says, “for people not born yet”. By conjuring up a world as yet unknown, it left others confused, threatened, or hostile.

Jean-Claude Carrière is one of the scriptwriters. He was responsible for several of Buñuel’s screenplays, including The Milky Way, with the self-declared “search for truth” of pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela. My guess is that the film owes many of its spiritual insights to him. Julian Schnabel, also director of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, brings us a riot of colour which would make Vincent proud. There are also scenes filmed in greyscale as seen through, in the words of Don McLean’s song “Vincent”, “eyes that know the darkness in my soul”.

Dafoe plays a man haunted by demons and transfiguring them into dazzling sunlight. The picture ends with an attribution to the Holy Spirit.

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