With Loving Vincent and now At Eternity’s Gate coming out within a year of one another, Vincent Van Gogh is having a bit of a moment in cinema. Why the legendary artist is now in the zeitgeist is a question that I cannot seem to find any answer to, especially as both films have been rather average, and At Eternity’s Gate doesn’t even have the hand-painted novelty value of Loving Vincent. As a showcase for Willem Dafoe, playing Van Gogh and his declining health very well, it’s excellent, but the rest of the film is really playing catch up to the performances.
Most of At Eternity’s Gate is set in and around Arles, where Van Gogh produced many of his most celebrated paintings, though writer-director Julian Schnabel focuses more strongly on Van Gogh’s mental health than his art. Dafoe is fantastic at conveying the terror and exhaustion that comes with having a mind that you cannot trust, his wide and panicky eyes in invasive close ups making the anxiety almost contagious. He’s both utterly sympathetic and deeply frustrating, and very able support from Rupert Friend as Oscar Isaac as Van Gogh’s brother and friend Gauguin, respectively, helps drive this dichotomy home.
Performances aside, though, this is standard biopic stuff, with a script that rarely surprises and some messily executed attempts at visually and aurally presenting mental illness. Van Gogh replays conversations that have gone wrong in his head over and over, and in the right hands this could have been a very powerful technique to show the overthinking that pervades the anxious mind. Instead, Schnabel has these conversations repeat almost instantly after they’ve finished (sometimes when a different part of the talk is still ongoing) until it feels like you’re bearing witness to a boring, confusing mistake.
Visually, there are similar problems. While there are some lovely touches and, at its best, the colours explode off the screen, far too much of At Eternity’s Gate looks as if it has been shot with a GoPro camera. As Vincent explores the countryside, it looks like a Facebook video celebrating a rural holiday, this style not at all fitting the material. A standout scene with Mads Mikkelsen cameoing as a bemused priest shows a sense of humour that the rest of the film lacks, and though At Eternity’s Gate might be a great actors’ film, its script and direction are too error-prone for it to be simply a great film.