In “At Eternity’s Gate,” a vivid, intensely affecting portrait of Vincent van Gogh toward the end of his life, the artist walks and walks. Head bowed, he looks like a man on a mission, though at other times he seems more like a man at prayer. Often dressed in a blue shirt, he carries an easel, brushes and paint strapped to his back, trudging in light that changes from golden to wintry blue. One day in 1888, he puts his battered boots on the red tile floor of his room in Arles, France. He quickly begins creating a simple painting of them; the original now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The journey of those shoes from humble floor to museum wall tells a familiar story about van Gogh, whose painful life is part of a lucrative brand known as Vincent the Mad Genius. In “At Eternity’s Gate,” the director Julian Schnabel imagines a different Vincent. This Vincent — a magnificent Willem Dafoe — is not defined by that brand but by the art with which he at once communes with the world and transcends it. Schnabel is interested in this difficult, mercurial man and attentive to his hardships. Strikingly, though, his interest has a rare quality of tenderness to it, perhaps because, unlike most filmmakers who make movies about great artists, he is fundamentally preoccupied with art itself.
It seems almost impossible, or maybe foolish, that anyone would take on another biography of van Gogh, who died in 1890 at 37. All this time later, he can feel embedded and even lost in myth, a near-afterthought to the multiple interpretations of his life and work as well as to the inexorable churn of commercial exploitation. Working from a script he wrote with Jean-Claude Carrière and Louise Kugelberg, Schnabel approaches van Gogh’s life by drastically condensing it, and skipping or skimming over biographical milestones. His earlier struggles and professional and personal disappointments are often expressed obliquely and in Dafoe’s feverish eyes and attitude.
Dafoe, with his surprising, sometimes terrifying mouth, and his skull visible beneath skin as tightly stretched as canvas, has one of cinema’s great faces, and Schnabel makes delicate use of both its ragged beauty and expressive range. Dafoe’s thin, coiled physicality suggests both fragility and determination, while his tensile face flutters with an astonishment of emotions that, by turns, suggest a yielding or off-putting sensibility. (Few actors can look so frightening or so beatific in such rapid succession.)
Vincent’s agonies render moot the age difference between the character and actor; Dafoe is 63, and his deepest creases can seem like evidence of Vincent’s current and past suffering.
The movie begins with a brief flash forward to Vincent, awkwardly and with mounting desperation asking a confused young peasant woman (Lolita Chammah) to pose for him. The story then flips to Paris and settles into its primary time frame with Vincent and his younger brother, Theo (a moving Rupert Friend), whose close friendship and money sustain him. Opening with a glimpse of the future is an overworked framing device, but the Paris scenes have snap and a fitting dankness, and it’s where van Gogh meets an imperious, seductive Gauguin (a perfect Oscar Isaac). Soon, van Gogh is in the south of France, where he finds his light and enters a period of feverish creation.
At Eternity’s Gate
Stars: Willem Dafoe, Mads Mikkelsen, Emmanuelle Seigner, Amira Casar and Oscar Isaac
Director: Julian Schnabel
Rating: PG-13 for some thematic content
Length: 111 minutes