Some actors, building on a base of natural talent, shine especially brightly in part because they bring their “A game” to every role – even in a throwaway product that’s only paying the rent for that month. Such artists often prove to be the best thing about whatever movie they’re in. When they’re offered meatier parts in worthier projects, the results are worth seeking out, though you may have to keep an eye on the schedules of your local art cinemas to catch their fleeting appearances.
That is certainly the case with Willem Dafoe. From Platoon in 1986 to The Florida Project in 2017, his characterizations have been consistently riveting. The fact that he doesn’t turn up his nose at offers to play yet another psycho killer in yet another action-flick-of-the-month may obscure the value of his overall oeuvre, but somehow that morass of typecasting never seems to bog him down for long. The camera has always loved Dafoe’s face, and audiences ought to feel grateful that he never succumbed to the temptation to get his snaggly teeth capped. However, his thespian gifts deeply transcend that arresting physical veneer. And now, at last, he has been given what may prove to be the role of his lifetime: Vincent Van Gogh, in Julian Schnabel’s latest ode to art, At Eternity’s Gate.
Though I am disappointed to learn that he is Dutch in nickname only, Dafoe is an obvious physical match for the role, his naturally ginger hair, fevered eyes, pointed chin and ascetic cheekbones easily evoking the Van Gogh we know from his many self-portraits. But that’s merely the jumping-off point. The actor gives us a man alternately stretched on the rack of his own genius and the world’s rejection and blissed out by nature’s extravagant beauty. His Van Gogh is a kindred spirit to the English Romantic poet and artist William Blake, who sees trees bedecked with angels on his daily walks. The burden of his vision is palpable; it seems to seep from the actor’s every pore.
Schnabel is an equally perfect director to be taking on this project. He has profiled visual artists before, notably Basquiat in the 1996 film of the same name. More than that, the influence of Van Gogh is apparent in Schnabel’s own artwork, especially the lusty application of impasto (though Schnabel’s palette tends more toward the morbid, favoring the color of dried blood over late-period Van Gogh’s unadulterated sunshine). Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) grumpily criticizes his friend Vincent’s then-unheard-of fondness for thickly textured surfaces as being “more like sculpture than painting.” We viewers, enjoying the privilege of 20/20 hindsight, can smile at how prescient Van Gogh was, how medium-altering his scandalous, muscular style will ultimately prove to be.
Drawing heavily on Vincent’s voluminous correspondence with his brother and patron Theo (Rupert Friend), the screenplay for At Eternity’s Gate – written by French novelist Jean-Claude Carrière, Julian Schnabel himself and his Significant Other, Louise Kugelberg – is not the film’s strongest suit. Though Dafoe makes them his own, toning down the conceptual bombast with diffident delivery, too many lines of dialogue come off as “artist’s statements.” Van Gogh’s observation that he may have been cursed by God to be painting for generations not yet born comes as close as anything to the film’s core philosophy. Was he really that self-aware, though? The line seems a bit too obvious, from our retrospective point of view, to work the way it’s intended.
Unsurprisingly, Schnabel’s approach is much more successful when he concentrates on visuals than on dialogue. The handheld camerawork by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme is intermittently praiseworthy, overly shaky at times and too often reliant on the use of blurry filters to illustrate, in a visually heavyhanded way, Vincent’s lapses into psychosis. But when it’s working well, it’s stunning. There’s a transitional scene early on, when the painter flees a drab, chilly Paris winter in search of the warm, golden light of Arles, in which we are shown Dafoe – his legs, mostly – as he stubbornly pushes his way through dense brown wheatfield stubble. The spring unfolds before our eyes; the plant life turns chartreuse and then a deep, rich green. Or we watch him from a distance as he scrambles like a bug up a karst cliffside with his easel and paintbox strapped to his back, finally arriving breathless and grinning beatifically at a high viewpoint before which a now-iconic landscape unfolds in all directions. These are scenes that would seem pompous, overblown Oscar-bait if shot in Steadicam with a wide-angle lens; here we get the cosmic glory of it all, but as seen by one imperfect individual who struggles to convey his vision to fellow humans who have not yet learned how to look.
Visual detail is everything in At Eternity’s Gate. Schnabel and Delhomme make a masterful team when they slow the camera movement down to linger lovingly on, say, the contrast between Vincent’s gnarled, knobby fingers and filthy nails and his brother’s plump, pale, perfectly groomed bourgeois hands. Even the painter’s bony toes, glimpsed protruding from a blanket in a hospital scene, evoke the twisted curves of the cypress trees that he depicted repeatedly in his later works.
A painter-turned-filmmaker can perhaps be forgiven for having an eye that’s better than his ear, or for trying too hard to tell a story in symbolic imagery that can occasionally become overexplicit. Near the end of the film, Schnabel’s use of echoic repetition of dialogue on the soundtrack to signify Van Gogh’s descent into a fugue state is a definite misfire. So too are Oscar Isaac’s accent and his snarky demeanor, both of which come off as belonging much more to New York than to the South of France.
In quite a few ways, At Eternity’s Gate is not necessarily the triumphal movie that we might like it to be. But it’s still frequently glorious. Do go see it. And if Willem Dafoe doesn’t finally get his Best Actor nom this year, then Hollywood needs a kick in the pants, as surely as the art collectors of Van Gogh’s day.