At Eternity’s Gate

Van Gogh to 1890


30 December 2018| Comments Off on At Eternity’s Gate     by Sean Chavel


Vincent Van Gogh was a perpetual penniless painter who had trouble promoting himself and needed the assist of his brother Theo and his colleague Paul Gauguin to help get himself recognized. Van Gogh also never felt secure in this world, had a number of crazy schizophrenic episodes, and had eye glaucoma that he hardly complained about but didn’t make things easy. At Eternity’s Gate, in other words, is not a hero worship biopic but a challenging portrait of a nebulous personality. This non-traditional biopic plunges into the troubled point of view of Van Gogh, is meditative at best and ponderous at worst, and contains a number of conversations that belong to a bygone era. But what fascinating philosophical conversations people had in the old century! Van Gogh was also plagued by self-doubt that is only compounded by scenes of a schoolteacher or a priest whom tell him his work is lousy.

I went in knowing that Willem Dafoe was nominated for Best Actor by the Academy Awards, and have caught up late to it. I cannot love the performance in a conventional sense, but I admire it tremendously. Dafoe’s Van Gogh is not one you can embrace. The purpose here is to not provide a beloved figure of the past, but one of a man who was obscure and self-alienated. Sure, he wants his paintings to be bought and he wants to be liked, but he does not know how to attain that. He doesn’t have likeability. It’s a cruel irony that a century after his death his paintings would sell for millions each.

Dafoe once again submerges into his character from the outside-in. His Van Gogh is short on answers to life. He likes women, but is oblivious that a woman could be turned off because he doesn’t bathe. And if his hygiene is not the issue, he manages to say something awkward to blow it. His life is more about finding inspiration and creating art from the long walks he takes into nature. Director Julian Schnabel (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) paints with natural light – his camera peers into the autumn trees, into the fields, into the skies. The photography took place in rural locations in France, and there are long handheld tracking shots of him drifting through a divine countryside.

This can leave you anxious for facts, or things said with substance. Since there are long silences at times, “At Eternity’s Gate” is a film that you have to be patient with. Yet the further it goes along, the more it comes to grip you. There are numerous things about Van Gogh demystified. I knew from childhood he cut off his ear to give to a woman, and I always figured it was an act of crazy love. It’s less romantic that that, according to the film. He simply went into fugue states and did crazy things that he could not remember doing, including hurting himself. He was committed to voluntary mental hospitals a number of times. Often, being committed helped him find the progress he was searching for. Late in life, it was when he was in a mental hospital that he painted seventy-five works in eighty days.

The death of Van Gogh is inexplicable, and came at the behest of two boys sloppily trying to rip him off. He died two days after the incident. Art collectors very well might have found immediate interest in buying art that was made by a tragically dead artist.

There are strange languorous passages, some pitiful moments of Van Gogh slumping, some inspiring friendship that occurs with Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), half-brilliant but half-ragged conversations in close-up, and lots of beautiful photography that is so natural and gorgeous and radiant that many shots feel like perfect paintings themselves. When “At Eternity’s Gate” meanders, which it feels like it does a few times, at least you are paying witness to what looks like sublime creation.

110 Minutes. Rated PG-13.


Film Cousins: “Lust for Life,” (1956); “Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams,” (1990, Japan); “Basquiat,” (1996); “Pollock,” (2000).

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.


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