Many auteurs have taken up the challenge of making a film about Vincent van Gogh and have been found lacking. His myth is too great, his cultural presence, from record-breaking auction prices to reproductions on coffee cups, too pervasive. Vincente Minnelli, in “Lust for Life” (1956); Akira Kurosawa (with Martin Scorsese as van Gogh!), in “Dreams” (1990); Robert Altman, in “Vincent and Theo” (1990), among others: All succumbed to a greater or lesser degree to the temptations of sentimentality, stereotype, mystification, and self-projection — the tormented, misunderstood artist tends to be a stand-in for the filmmaker.
Painter/filmmaker Julian Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate” tries gamely to avoid those errors. To its credit it doesn’t drop heavy-handed visual allusions to van Gogh’s oeuvre — for example, the painting of the title never appears. His masterpieces can be seen stacked in corners, cluttering walls, seldom hung to good effect. The subjects of his portraits make cameos, or pose and serve as sounding boards for van Gogh’s ideas about art. He spends a lot of time stomping about the fields and forests that inspired him or frantically slashing away at a canvas with a fury that earns a rebuke from Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), who was briefly his odd-couple roommate.
Instead, Schnabel tries to re-create van Gogh’s inner workings during the intense last two years of his life — his point of view and his way of looking at the world that resulted in the masterpieces that have since become invaluable investment commodities. This emphasis on van Gogh’s struggle to communicate evokes comparisons to Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007) as it does to his other film about a doomed artist, “Basquiat” (1996).
To accomplish this, he has cast Willem Dafoe, who has portrayed extraordinary obsessives from Jesus Christ to the Green Goblin. Though he may be too old for the part — 63, and van Gogh died at 37 — Dafoe may be the best actor around for expressing an inner life in extremis. His Vincent convinces whether he is sobbing in a graveyard, or rubbing soil on his face in a mystic communion with nature, or hugging his long-suffering brother, Theo (Rupert Friend), while lying bewildered in a hospital bed. Oddly, though van Gogh’s letters to his brother are revered by readers and Schnabel draws on them for the film, he is never seen writing anything.
Less successfully, Schnabel employs camera and editing tricks to mirror van Gogh’s shaky grip on sanity. Literally shaky, as the point-of-view hand-held camera jitters, as in an action sequence from Paul Greengrass’s Jason Bourne movies. Images overlap, and dialogue loops and echoes as in a bad hashish experience. Schnabel is trying to re-create the creative process, the terror of mental illness, and the thrill of a religious experience all at the same time.
His van Gogh is a victim of his genius and of the society that failed to appreciate him, which is true to an extent but also feeds into the tired myth of the suffering artist. Suffering for us — in a dialogue with a chaplain (Mads Mikkelsen) at an asylum he points out the similarity between their conversation and that between Jesus and Pilate. Maybe, he tells the priest, God made him an artist too soon, that his art would only be fully appreciated in the future by people yet to be born.
AT ETERNITY’S GATE
Directed by Julian Schnabel. Written by Schnabel, Louise Kugelberg, and Jean-Claude Carrière. Starring Willem Dafoe, Oscar Isaac, Rupert Friend, and Mads Mikkelsen. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner. 111 minutes. PG-13 (some thematic content). In English and French, with subtitles.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.