At Eternity’s Gate: Art Theft, by Scott Nye
Probably about midway through At Eternity’s Gate – but really, who can say how deep into this meandering, thoroughly unilluminating film – there’s a scene in which Vincent Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe), nearing the end of his stay at a mental hospital, discusses his art with a priest (Mads Mikkelsen). The priest has one of Vincent’s paintings, and spends their whole time together trying to get Vincent to see how awful it is. Back and forth they go with very slight variations on the exact same lines – Vincent will say that’s how he sees the world and his painting is an expression of that, and the priest will say that doesn’t make it art, look at this, it’s awful. This goes on for some time. It’s so monotonous that I started to notice the way Dafoe is framed in the shot, the ear Vincent had recently removed cautiously obscured by Mikkelsen’s head, except for a few times when the blocking fails and Dafoe swerves a little too low and you see the ear there, fully intact.
It’s around this time that I thought to myself, in an extremely Adrian Prussia voice – “Wait a minute, this is bullshit.”
As enticing as the idea of Julian Schnabel making an abstract, beautifully-shot Vincent Van Gogh film starring Dafoe, Mikkelsen, Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric, Rupert Friend, and Oscar Isaac seems on paper, this scene proves to encapsulate the movie quite well. It constantly restates the same themes with almost no variation, constantly gives the same essential montages with little variation – Vincent is painting, Vincent is walking, Vincent is angry – over the arc of a story that’s been done so many times that “Van Gogh movie” could practically be a genre. I don’t even know anything about Paul Gauguin, but was excited that Isaac would be playing him entirely because of how I understood him through other films.
We get most of the highlights – his time in the countryside supported by his art-dealer brother and only fan Theo (Friend), where he really came alive as an artist; his friendship and sometimes rivalry with Gauguin; his descent into rage and madness that culminates in the famous ear-slice; the hospital, the poverty, the loneliness at the very end of his life. Little of this is given fresh life, Van Gogh’s life and words instead mined for whatever thoughts about the artistic process that Schnabel and his co-screenwriters (Louise Kugelberg and the usually-extraordinary Jean-Claude Carrière) happen to agree with. The way they try to hide the ear, then give up, in the scene with the priest is a perfect example of this – they stick to the truth until the truth stops suiting them, then they shrug. It’s not just a matter of staying true to the facts or whatever; it’s about using a remarkable man’s life for your own purposes while giving nothing over to him. The film is uniquely incurious about Van Gogh himself beyond the myth of what he represents, which is the last quality we need in a Van Gogh film anymore.