Through Van Gogh’s Eyes: New York Film Festival’s Premiere of At Eternity’s Gate

BY DEAN MOSES

If there is one thing I have learned while attending film festivals as a member of the press, it’s that deep down, beneath the cynicism and pretentious veneer of the movie critic lays a fan, a plain old fan who loves to get lost in a large room lit only by a screen’s glow. It is no wonder then that when Willem Dafoe climbed the stage at the 56th annual New York Film Festival, the press conference erupted with raised hands, hundreds of fans in critics’ clothing all vying to have their questions answered and, in some small way, be a part of At Eternity’s Gate history. This is the narrative of that auditorium on that particular day, a picture that has been painted with words and will remain forever on the page, a time capsule of my unique viewpoint, and that is exactly what At Eternity’s Gate explores.

The film follows famed Post-Impressionist artist Vincent Van Gogh played by Willem Dafoe, though in a much more ragged state than when he appeared on stage in a lavish suit and shinning hair. In this picture he is often disheveled and covered in muck, a man on the edge of society who would ultimately define it. Most of us are aware of this tragic tale, Vincent Van Gogh the genius outcast, a man ahead of his time. Of course, At Eternity’s Gate explores this famed aspect, but it also goes much further, allowing the audience to see through his eyes, to perceive what he saw and experience his mental illness. It has been said time and time again that there is a fine line between genius and madness, but who gets to say who among us is the mad ones? Dafoe portrays Van Gogh as a man overwhelmed by his time, unable to cope with many of its social aspects or unable to fulfill the period’s expected workforce obligations. He is supported financially by his beloved brother while he himself whittles away at a new painting each day. All he wishes to do is paint, and in fact in one scene he states that if he could not paint he would die. This makes his character both extraordinarily heartbreaking and empathetical. Who can blame him for wanting to be able to do what he loves? We all have that one passion that inspires us and drives us forward, giving us hope and meaning.

Beside his artistic aspirations, he longs for a friend who not only understands his unique aspect of the world but one who also appreciates his work. Throughout the film many individuals comment on Van Gogh’s pieces in a negative fashion, some brashly stating its worthlessness. Despite all the hatred endured, Van Gogh continues to paint, and in doing so opens us up—the viewers—to some incredible insight into his process. We tag along as he hikes into the wilderness with canvases and utensils strapped to his back. Through wide shot cinematography we are shown extensive landscapes, some lush green foliage others, sunsets that cast its last golden hues over drawn out fields. This man becomes one with the environment, even going so far as to pour grains of dirt over his face as he strives to understand the world and compound that understanding into his artistry.

On the narrative side of things, At Eternity’s Gate mostly stays true to accounts described in textbooks and other countless educational material many of us learned while growing up. Nevertheless, that does not mean the film didn’t take certain liberties in terms of exploring why famous actions took place. For instance, the infamous self-mutilation and subsequent removal of Van Gogh’s ear is explored to new depths, though in a somewhat fictional manner. The brutality of it is downplayed while the emotional and psychologically aspects take center-stage.

At Eternity’s Gate tells a sad story about a lonely genius, a man who sees the world differently than most. Through an art house style of film-making we are not only given a glimpse through his eyes, we are let into his world and all the tragedy and splendor therein. Fans of art, biopics, and creative minds alike will absorb and adore this center-piece of the 56th annual New York Film Festival.

Actors, Oscar Isaac (Star Wars The Last Jedi) and Rupert Friend (The Young Victoria) accompanied star Willem Dafoe along with Director Julian Schnabel, screen writer Jean-Claude Carrière, and co-writer and editor Louise Kugelberg. Willem Dafoe had this to say regarding the set’s environment. “One thing that was very particular about the way we were shooting: I have known Julian for a long time, and generally speaking we had a very strong script, we had very specific texts but we would go there in the morning, get it ready to film in—that was the first part of the day—then we would shoot the scene quite quickly—sometimes we were even done by lunch. And then we would have half a day to go out in nature and walk around and I could paint, and we would invent some things. So, that wasn’t a normal day, but that often happened and that was very special because there was this structure but then there was also this looseness at the same time. I like that very much, it kept things very fluid and it didn’t feel like a traditional movie, it felt like we were getting together things that we were interested in and making ourselves available to it and then stuff would happen, which sounds irresponsible, but interesting things were happening because we were shoot-ing in places that he [Van Gogh] was. There were landscapes that were recognizable still to this day from his paintings, and, of course, for me I was learning to paint, so it was a very strong experience.”

Photo by Dean Moses