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  • Fiona Prior

At Eternity's Gate

At Eternity’s Gate

Director: Julian Schnabel

Julian Schnabel’s ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ focuses on the last years of Vincent Van Gogh’s life and stars Willem Dafoe as Van Gogh. It is worth your attention if you love art. Schnabel is an artist as well as a director and his directional work first came to my notice in 1996 when I saw his biopic ‘Basquiat’; a film about the life of painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. Schnabel captured the meteoric rise and drug overdose demise of this shiny 80’s art talent and also touched on the ethics of a commercial art-world that facilitated extreme success (hence abundant drug money) to an addict artist. Basquiat's inevitable overdose of course rocketed the already heightened value of his artworks.

In ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ Schnabel tries to take us inside the head of Van Gogh, endeavours to capture those transcendent moments of rapture that Van Gogh was so masterly in depicting not only in a night time sky but in a field of golden wheat or a vase of sunflowers. Falling backward into the golden blaze of a field we definitely get it; that Van Gogh wanted to communicate these manically exuberant moments through his paintings and to his audience and Schnabel tries to cinematically produce these hypomanic episodes by saturating his screen frames with golden light.

I loved Schnabel’s attempts to render the artists heightened fervour in ‘At Eternity's Gates’ and it totally worked for me. I felt that I had a glimpse of an innocent and widely generous creative soul who felt his unique ‘vision’ and his need to paint were gifts from God and who only felt at peace when completely immersed in his painting (not unlike Jackson Pollock who felt that he entered into a metaphysical space when in the act of painting).

For a film that strives to capture the ecstatic present, ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ also does a great job at capturing family love and the nobility of a creative outsider. I noticed tears welling up in my eyes when Van Gogh snuggles to his brother Theo (Rupert Friend) in complete love and trust on his asylum bed, trying to explain his fear of those moments where he loses control and then recollection. Likewise when Van Gogh eventually dies from a gunshot wound to the stomach ‒ the film gives a version of Van Gogh’s mysterious death as not suicide, but at the hands of an unhinged village teenager ‒ you feel that Van Gogh claims responsibility for his own death to protect this other young outsider.

image: 'The Starry Night' 1889 (the view from the east-facing window of Van Gogh's asylum room at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence)

I haven’t even mentioned the depiction Van Gogh’s strong friendship with artist Paul Gauguin or a hilarious and deeply touching conversation between Van Gogh and a well-intentioned priest who felt Van Gogh’s work abhorrent! Too much ravishing and unbridled life radiating from those canvases would be my guess for such harsh criticism!

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