The year is 1888, and Vincent van Gogh must leave Paris. There is nothing left for him here. Cafés won’t show his work, the artists’ collectives are more concerned with bureaucratic policies and money than painting, and van Gogh’s closest, and possibly only, friend, Paul Gauguin is leaving too. He is headed south, to Madagascar; a place where they have never even heard of painting. Where should I go, van Gogh asks. South, replies Gauguin.
And so he does. Down to Arles, a rural village of the Mediterranean coast where van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) will spend the next year opening up his canvas before seas of green grass, fields of yellow sunflowers, and brown trees as knobby and knotted as his mind. Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) joins him, brother Theo (Rupert Friend) finances his paintings, and van Gogh is allowed to pursue his art the only way he knows how. Yes, he will cut off his ear, he will be locked in an asylum in Saint-Rémy, and he will die penniless and mad from a gunshot wound — either self-inflicted or from a young boy dressed as Buffalo Bill. Either way, van Gogh will not see the age of 38.
This is At Eternity’s Gate, director Julian Schnabel’s two-hour master class in subjective storytelling. Working with cinematographer Benoît Delhomme and editor Louise Kugelberg, Schnabel uses black frames, yellow frames, fade-outs, overlapping dialogue that reverberates and echoes through the chambers of van Gogh’s mind, saturated colors, and choppy editing to put us directly between van Gogh’s eyes and ears. Characters commonly address the camera as if we are van Gogh and van Gogh addresses us when he needs to rationalize events that defy rationalization. Clear-eyed and confused, van Gogh attempts to put the events that led him to this moment the way a drunk tries to assemble a timeline of last night’s events. The aftermath of the infamous ear-slicing is as confounding as the action, and when a character, a priest (Mads Mikkelsen), brings up the incident, he does so with the familiar apocryphal story:
I understand you cut off your ear and gave it to a prostitute. Is this true?
Yes. But she wasn’t a prostitute.
Though van Gogh is just as confused by his actions as everyone else, he never falters to grasp the emotions of the world. The reality of that emotion might be shrouded in mystery, but as van Gogh tells a barmaid, “I like a mystery.”
How van Gogh managed to grasp the emotion of seeing — the act of seeing, not what is being seen — is the true genius of his work. The same is true with At Eternity’s Gate, which recreates the impression of van Gogh’s sight for viewers. We see the world as he might have: bisected and jagged. In these scenes, the top of the frame is in perfect focus with the bottom slightly fuzzy. These two images jar against one another, overlapping into something refracted, something wholly unique to the subject.
Even better, At Eternity’s Gate is a movie designed to look like a painting. From the colors and textures of the everyday images to a scene at a museum where van Gogh muses about his influences. Here, the camera focuses on individual brushstrokes before pulling out and revealing the whole canvas. It’s not the art that’s important; it’s the creation — the human hands behind the work. That’s what makes van Gogh’s The Starry Night such a work of brilliance: it captures and immortalizes a singular moment when one soul looked out on to the world. To say At Eternity’s Gate is its equal would be blasphemy. But, it’s damn close.