I have lifted this article directly from WestmountMagazine.ca. The movie is currently in limited distribution.
With At Eternity’s Gate, Julian Schnabel offers us a journey into the universe and the mind of Vincent Van Gogh, an artist who, despite skepticism, ridicule and illness, created some of the most beautiful and loved works of art in the world.
As a painter himself, the filmmaker is less interested in a factual account of Van Gogh’s life than in a subjective experience, like a backdrop for his deeply troubled protagonist. The landscapes he invites us to observe sometimes seem really eternal, and more than one scene is devoted to the simple observation of Van Gogh and the overwhelming beauty he sees.
Rather than simply suggesting madness affecting genius, the filmmaker portrays artistic creation as less of an action than a state of being. The film, winner of the Best Actor Award at the Venice Film Festival, stars Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, and Oscar Isaac.
Vincent Van Gogh died at the age of 37; Willem Dafoe is 61 years old. Despite this age gap, Dafoe portrays the painter with a physical and spiritual power similar to the one he transcendently portrayed in The Last Temptation of Christ. The director, a friend of Dafoe for 30 years, rejected the idea that the actor was too old for the role, saying that Dafoe was in better shape than Van Gogh at the time of his death.
Dafoe wanted to be as close as possible to the artist, and to become a painter himself. He roamed the same nature, the same landscapes of Arles painted by Van Gogh, closely followed by the director of photography, Benoît Delhomme.
“We forget ourselves and enter this other territory, guided by what we know and our imagination,” he explains. “The film is an expression, an orderly recording of this experience. When you do it with someone like Julian, who had a connection with Van Gogh and who has painted all his life, it’s a very intense experience, and the stakes are very high also. You get involved in a profound, transformative way.”
“Not all roles, or movies, are like this one. This powerful film was a pleasure to do.” Dafoe feels a connection between his interpretations of Van Gogh and Jesus Christ in The Last Temptation of Christ. “The two men were trying to reconcile the ecstasy they felt with the dreary worldliness of their lives,” adding that Van Gogh’s isolated daily life was difficult to reconcile with that joy and rapture he sensed in nature … Van Gogh felt a strong spiritual impulse, and wanted to find that union with nature. And he found it through painting.
At Eternity’s Gate gets its title of an oil painting of Vincent van Gogh that he made in 1890 in Saint-Rémy de Provence, in early May, about two months before his death, usually considered a suicide. But in one of the written proofs that he did not commit suicide, he wrote: “I do not wish my death, but if it happens, I’ll take good note of it.”