Small analysis/review on Julian Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate”

The screen is black. I hear a voice that tells us (the audience) about desires big and small, the desire of being famous and respectful. Then we see Willem Dafoe acting as Vincent van Gogh in Julian Schnabel’s drama film called “At Eternity’s Gate”, where Willem Dafoe brilliantly plays van Gogh’s tough life. Julian Schnabel has made a heartfelt and wordless, in almost every scene, film about the last years of unique and unusual man Vincent van Gogh. In many scenes, we see a handheld camera that seems to alternate between dancing with Dafoe, then attacking him with close-up shots, and running alongside the actor. Some scenes are shot half blurry, perhaps it was because of the use of two languages: English and French or not, maybe for the reason that we are shown two sides of Vincent van Gogh, the one when we see him as a painter and the other when he starts having psychological problems that made his life struggle more.

Julian Schnabel shows all the beauty of nature in the film where Vincent van Gogh enjoys standing alone and painting in nature, in fields of sunflowers or orchards or landscapes. It is easy to notice the way van Gogh is admired by nature in the film: he crumbles soil on his face, touches sunflower leaves, looks at the sun like it is the color inherent in him. He is dissolved in nature, as if he is part of it, after that he puts it in his work; he paints what he feels and feels what he paints. The camera shows little details of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings with close-ups of rapid ink sketches or thick, impasto brushstrokes being laid on a canvas- his creative process feels palpably alive. Little things. Little moments of his life. They are not little.

Dafoe’s appearance is a great match to Vincent van Gogh’s; big eyes, his skull visible beneath the skin as tightly stretched as canvas, make him look fragile and determined at the same time. There is an age difference between the character and actor; Vincent van Gogh was only 37 years old when he died, Dafoe is 63, and his deepest wrinkles can seem like evidence of Vincent’s current and past sufferings.

The movie begins with a brief scene where Vincent asks a confused young peasant woman to pose for him. The story then flips to Paris, where he meets an imperious, seductive Gauguin, whom he calls his closest friend later on in his life. Soon, van Gogh is in the South of France, being full of energy and inspired by Paul Gauguin, he starts working on new creations. In this part of the movie, Julian Schnabel focuses on Vincent’s face and body, underlining his physical appearance and the material condition that shapes his sense of self and art. It is here where Schnabel shows nature's beauty and van Gogh’s relationship to it.

Vincent lives in Arles; his room clearly conveys the roughness of his life and how the passion for art finds its way to his work. After he takes a small canvas out of his bag, the camera pans from his feet and up to his body and then settles on his wrinkled face. He hunches over from the cold, and the wind gets into his room from an open window, that brings blue light into his small room. He bites an apple, wiggles his toe through a hole of his sock and puts his shabby shoes on the floor in front of him, and begins painting them. Van Gogh completes 75 paintings in 80 days, many of the paintings are legendary. The camera shoots and portrays van Gogh’s favorite color of Sunlight through bright filters. It all (in a film) looks like Julian Schnabel imagines what Vincent van Gogh was really like, He portrays van Gogh’s realities of his life, such as cutting off an ear or being at mental hospitals, in order to show him as a haunted soul, locked in a battle with his mental problems.

We do not see the ear slicing, but we see the conversation that Vincent has with his psychiatrist shortly after, his bandaged head appearing into the camera as we look for the reasons why he might have done that to himself. Van Gogh says that he does not want his friend Gauguin to leave, probably as a sign of protest he cut off his ear. His friend moves to Paris because it was nothing to do in a small town and Vincent was arguing with Gauguin which makes another reason to leave. His mental problems made enemies of the town keep him tossed into the nearby asylum at Saint-Remy-de-Provence. Van Gogh lives with his brother (who supported him financially) some time in Paris before the incident with his ear happens.

Sometime later, van Gogh gets released from a mental institution into the care of Dr. Paul Gachet, a heart specialist and amateur artist whom Van Gogh considers a kind spirit. It seems like his life is settled down, he draws every day and enjoys his life, when one summer day, van Gogh is accidentally shot by boys, with no reason shown. Julian Schnabel portrays his death by two boys, however, some people argue that van Gogh committed suicide.

There are interesting motifs sprinkled through the movie, like dialogues between Vincent van Gogh and Gauguin, van Gogh’s etchings-all in plain ink, that he draws abruptly and fast, bringing him his own style. Julian Schnabel creates an amazing picture of van Gogh, who lives with his pain and creates a masterpiece that made him recognizable in his life and nowadays. Schnabel shows unbearable beauty in every scene of Vincent van Gogh’s life through his obstacles, pain, love of nature, inspiring us to live with senses we feel and find beauty in everything we see, and we call it art.

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