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Tuesday, February 12, 2019

OSCARS 2019: At Eternity's Gate (2018)

The short and difficult life of Vincent van Gogh continues to inspire artists 129 years after his death. The way his madness produced groundbreaking works of genius, ignored and misunderstood in his own time, still fascinates. Van Gogh's story is well trotted cinematic ground. Just last year, I was talking about “Loving Vincent,” an animated biopic chronicling the troubled artist's last days. 2019's award season brings yet another adaptation of van Gogh's short time on this planet. “At Eternity's Gate” comes to us from director Julian Schnabel, who was also a painter before turning his eye towards critically acclaimed films. Does Schnabel bring some special insight into this topic or is the film simply covering a tale better told before?

“At Eternity's Gate” focuses in on the last few years of Vincent van Gogh's life. Living in the south of France, the painter struggles to sell his work. Those that see his paintings largely dislike them. His mental illness flares up, leading to him unintentionally making people uncomfortable. He's often in and out of institutions for this reason. Never the less, Vincent has friends of sorts. Such as his brother, who is desperate to take care of Vincent, or Paul Gauguin, another painter who believes in disrupting the system. As hard as he works on his paintings, Van Gogh is fighting a loosing battle against his own demons.

Schnabel's goal with “At Eternity's Gate” is fairly evident. He attempts to take us inside Van Gogh's head. This is clear early on, as the film begins with a point-of-view shot from Vincent's perspective. Schnabel adopts that same tactic a few times. When not doing this, he also adds odd coloration or misty swirls to what the audience is seeing. Obviously, this is an attempt to replicate how Van Gogh's mental illnesses made him see the world. Aside from visuals, the director also frequently has the artist narrate his occasionally scattered thoughts. When that doesn't work, he'll have long conversations with other characters, as a way to express the motivation behind his actions. (The most heavy handed of which has Van Gogh predicting that he's ahead of his time, that his work is for future generations.)

If it wasn't immediately apparent, “At Eternity's Gate” has an artsy-fartsy streak. Schnabel devotes long stretches of screen time to the artist wandering around in the country landscapes he loved so much. The film comes dangerously close to the Malickian cliché of wheat blowing majestically in the wind. When scored to sparse piano music, this certainly makes the film feel rather pretentious. In addition to that, Schnabel also utilizes many shaky, handheld shots of the same subjects. While this takes the film even closer to replicating Van Gogh's mental illness, it also begins to grate on the audience. When a big moment near the end has multiple voice overs and mirrored images all occurring at once, the viewer gets a little tired of these cinematic tricks.

Holding this sometimes chaotic material together is a graceful central performance. Willem Dafoe has pleasantly evolved from Hollywood's go-to nutcase to a likably avuncular character actor. Despite being twenty-six years older than Van Gogh ever was, Dafoe gives a powerful performance. A key moment occurs when a group of school children accost a painting Van Gogh during a field trip. You see the look of panic on his face, scared and uncertain of how to defend himself from their verbal attacks. Other times, Dafoe depicts Van Gogh's unpredictable episodes as arising out of frustration. He is deeply ashamed and fearful of his own instability, a wounded soul who would happily paint by himself if not betrayed by his own brain. Yet there's also humanizing moments, like Vincent shooting the shit about then-current art with Gaugan, among my favorite moments in the film.

“At Eternity's Gate” really is Dafoe's film, as most of the supporting roles amount to celebrity cameos. Such as Mads Mikkelsen appearing as an unnamed priest or Oscar Isaac's shout-y take on Gaugan. The director's approach to the material is effective, up to a point, before it just becomes grating. However, the lead actor is fantastic and that goes a long way towards redeeming a film largely set within his head. I have no doubt that more movies will be made about Van Gogh's life. His tragic story of madness and genius will continue to inspire filmmakers to come, I know. Until the next one, “At Eternity's Gate” is, if nothing else, an interesting stab at the subject matter. [6/10]

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