At Eternity's Gate ***

by Ruben Rosario

Age is but a number in Julian Schnabel's vibrant exploration of the impulse to create art, anchored by an affecting Willem Dafoe, who makes us forget he's a sixtysomething actor playing thirtysomething painter Vincent Van Gogh. 

Is it worth $10? Yes  

Vincent Van Gogh takes his shoes off. He looks at them, paired next to each other as if they were waiting for their Kodak moment. Minutes later, the Dutch painter turns hastily mixed splotches of paint into a still life, forcing us to look at his shabby footwear the way he sees it. This brief scene early on in “At Eternity's Gate” appears to be tossed in almost as an afterthought, but it's emblematic of what sets Julian Schnabel's latest screen biography apart in the midst of a very saturated biopic season: It's all about the process.

The film, which chronicles the final two years of the influential artist's life, seems at first glance to be your basic cinema-of-quality awards bait, an impeccably pedigreed profile of a tortured artist expertly calibrated to draw plaudits. But that's not the way it plays. If anything, Schnabel's consistent refusal to stick to the expected beats feels like the antidote to the genre's cobwebbed confines. The filmmaker, a painter himself, refuses to box in Van Gogh for middlebrow audience consumption, so instead he sets him free, content with showing the artist in his natural habitat.

Which means a sizable chunk of “At Eternity's Gate's” running time is devoted to showing Van Gogh out in the open, easel on his back, as he stakes out the ideal location to turn squiggly lines on canvas into another of his vibrant tableaux. That doesn't mean it ignores previously dramatized aspects of the artist's life, such as his close relationships with his brother Theo and fellow painter Paul Gauguin, or the way his art is dismissed. All that is there, but for long stretches it takes a back seat to simply showing Van Gogh either at work or struggling with mental illness.

But even when it delves into the dark clouds in Van Gogh's life, “At Eternity's Gate” remains a sunny, frequently upbeat look at the burden of creation. Even more accomplished is the way Schnabel turns the film's most dubious casting call into his most inspired decision. Van Gogh was 37 when he kicked the bucket, so naturally he is played by spring chicken Willem Dafoe ... who was 62 when the film went into production. But here's the thing: Dafoe is so adept at making Van Gogh's struggles, both in his low self-esteem about his talent and his unraveling mind, so compelling that he renders the age disparity between performer and subject a non-issue. The Oscar nominee also has palpable chemistry with co-stars Rupert Friend, much more age-appropriate as devoted, kindhearted Theo, and Oscar Isaac, whose boastful Gauguin walks a fine line between compassion and opportunism.

Schnabel also resists the temptation of making the film resemble Van Gogh's paintings, the way that, say, last year's astonishingly overpraised “Loving Vincent” reduced the life of the artist to an “objet d'art” for viewers to ooh and aah over. What veteran cinematographer Benoit Delhomme does do is appropriate the colors Van Gogh favored. Those radiant yellows and intense cerulean blues fill the screen in inviting but never excessively showy ways. Schnabel also peppers the film with point-of-view shots, opting for partly out-of-focus glimpses that imagine the distinctly skewed way the painter viewed his surroundings. It should all be insufferable, and probably would have been if “At Eternity's Gate” had been made with someone lacking Schnabel's inquisitive and empathetic sensibility, but the visual curlicues feel just right, as does Tatiana Lisovkaia's engulfing piano score. Also, just as he did in his Reinaldo Arenas biopic “When Night Falls,” the director takes pains to film a handful of scenes in the language the events they're based on took place (in this case French and a little Dutch), a welcome acknowledgment that he knows something is always lost when one assembles an international cast to have them talk in English.

That's not to say “At Eternity's Gate” is without its issues. Most glaring is the way Schnabel, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jean-Claude Carrière and Louise Kugelberg, handles an encounter between Van Gogh and a young woman tending to sheep on a country road, an incident the filmmaker, oddly enough, uses as a framing device. What begins as an innocent request to draw a sketch escalates into physical altercation before Schnabel pulls the plug on the scene, all too conveniently letting the troubled artist off the hook. Someone with Dafoe's chops should have been given a chance to dive into Van Gogh's more questionable actions, but the film is worshipping at the altar of Van Gogh too intently to insert unsettling shadings into its portrayal.

The movie also runs out of steam just before its conclusion, which settles for a pretty half-assed depiction of the circumstances behind Van Gogh's untimely demise. But even as it limps to the finish line, the overarching effect, at least on this viewer, is one of serene, unhurried insight into a great voice that was not fully appreciated in its lifetime. Seeing it unfold is like stepping into a sunlit room to bask in the warmth of a pristine afternoon. It's rare to see this much sadness distilled with such unbridled joy.

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