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‘Brilliant’ Van Gogh film helps us see the world as the painter saw it

November 20, 2018

Julian Schnabels movie about Vincent van Gogh, At Eternitys Gate, gives us long, enormous close-ups of Willem Dafoes wonder-filled eyes. Its a brilliant strategy because it makes us want to see what the painter is seeing.

Like all movies about van Gogh, including last years Loving Vincent, 1956s Lust for Life and Robert Altmans 1990 Vincent and Theo, this one zeros in on the fact that the Dutchman is now universally acknowledged as one of the greatest artists of all time but, while he was alive, couldnt get a gig painting a fence. A painter himself, Schnabel hits that point often maybe too often? in scenes such as one in which a bar owner rips down a wall of van Gogh paintings, many of them among the most famous artworks in the world today.

What distinguishes Gate from its predecessors are its intimacy and intensity. In addition to Dafoe, Rupert Friend as loving brother Theo and Oscar Isaac as painter Paul Gaugin are showcased in straight-up-the-nostril close-ups, as if cinematographer Benoit Delhomme is trying to peer into their brains.

Likewise, Tatiana Lisovkaias score follows the trend of in-your-face music that functions almost like a character (see also Jonny Greenwoods The Phantom Thread and Mica Levis Jackie). Mostly, its rhythmic, piano-heavy music with a melody that recalls Simon and Garfunkels Old Friends, but one remarkable scene makes a shift: Van Gogh stares at a tree, sketching it with tiny crosshatches. Suddenly, a violin takes up the melody, the switch to the more ethereal instrument making it feel like the movie is shifting from inside van Goghs head into his soaring heart.

The spare screenplay juxtaposes koan-like insights into van Goghs process (What do you paint? he is asked, to which he replies, Sunlight), with images that recall Terrence Malick movies by which I mean that there are many scenes of van Gogh walking through rustling reeds at twilight.

Moviegoers may be surprised how often we see van Gogh in joyful times. Hes generally understood as someone who suffered from undiagnosable-at-the-time mental illnesses and yes, theres a scene where hes given a treatment thats essentially waterboarding but Schnabel insists that the artist was mostly powerful and confident when he was at work. When I paint, van Gogh says, I stop thinking and I feel I am part of everything.

Schnabel also excels at capturing the relationship between Vincent and Theo, highlighted by a quiet, tender moment when Vincent is confined to an asylum and Theo, having traveled more than a day to visit, climbs into bed with his brother for a whispered conversation about their shared childhood. Dafoe, simultaneously conveying pain and affection, and Friend, aching with compassion, create an exquisite portrait of brotherly devotion.

At Eternitys Gate is studded with places and people that will delight anyone familiar with van Goghs work. A letter carrier delivers a package and you realize hes depicted in the famed Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin. The painter moves into new digs and you recognize the Bedroom at Arles that now hangs in Paris Musee dOrsay.

The contrast between our familiarity with these works and the movie characters disinterest in them creates a sense of the painter planting seeds of trees that he wont live to see, but that weve been enjoying for more than a century.

That long-game approach is reflected in the bold casting of Dafoe, whos 26 years older than van Gogh lived to be. The choice pays off because Dafoes elegiac quality hints at why the artist was ahead of his time: because he saw more than anyone else could. Its a towering performance in a movie that casts a magnetic spell.

Chris Hewitt 612-673-4367 @HewittStrib

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