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DVD Review: At Eternity’s Gate

March 25, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Despite being 26 years older than Vincent van Gogh was at the time of his death from a gunshot wound at 37 in 1890, it turns out that Willem Dafoe is the perfect actor to bring the Dutch painter to the screen in At Eternity’s Gate, having earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for the role.

Much more than a typical biopic, director Julian Schnabel’s film instead aims to quite literally paint a portrait of van Gogh’s final few years spent in self-imposed exile living in Arles and Auvers-Sur-Oise, France, diving deep into his tortured psyche and how his madness fuelled his brilliance as an artist, allowing him to see the world through his own unique lens.

The film mainly unfolds through extended scenes, showing van Gogh’s relationship with his brother Theo (Rupert Friend), his friendship with French artist Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) and, in two of the film’s best sequences, the philosophical conversations that he has with the doctor (Mathieu Amalric) who evaluates him after cuts off his own ear, and his deeply spiritual discussion with a priest (Mads Mikkelson) at the mental institution that he is admitted to.

There are shades of Terrence Malick in the film’s free-flowing aesthetic and use of natural light, with cinematographer Benoît Delhomme utilizing closeups and handheld camerawork to put us as close to the characters as possible, sometimes even shooting from the first-person perspective of van Gogh. It’s an innovative, artistically daring approach, and it gives a sense of immediacy to At Eternity’s Gate that often isn’t seen in period pieces. The later scenes utilize a “bifocal” effect, with the top and bottom of the screen being shown at different focal lengths, to represent his increasingly fractured vision as an artist.

The film breaks away from the usual biopic formula, instead offering fragments of van Gogh’s life that together add up to a compelling portrait of mental illness, and how madness often closely connects with genius. Defoe carries the film with a haunting, tortured performance, often staring into the camera as he delivers his lines in a way that recalls the directness of van Gogh’s own portraits. It’s a brilliant showcase for the veteran character actor, who even learned to paint like van Gogh to take on the role, providing the centrepiece to a fascinating and revealing glimpse inside the mind of a famous artist.

The DVD also includes the three short but interesting featurettes Channeling van Gogh, Made by a Painter, and Vision of van Gogh.

At Eternity’s Gate is an Elevation Pictures release. It’s 111 minutes and rated PG.

Street Date: March 19th, 2019

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