Despite an impassioned Oscar-nominated performance by Willem Defoe, Julian Schnabel’s film about Vincent Van Gogh, AT ETERNITY’S GATE, is hard to get through. In splashy-catch-phrase-buzzword-obsessed Hollywood, the film is being called an “unconventional biopic.” And it is unconventional. But I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Because it also feels a bit like a glorified film-school project.
As with Schnabel’s own personal art, the movie is impressionistic, gestural, attempting to capture the “feeling of Van Gogh”, more so than a factual portrayal or a particular moment from the artist’s life. It’s a swirl of scenes captured with manic, hand-held “shakey-cam”, then put together in a cinematic jump-cut blender. Everything is built to feel spontaneous and in the moment. And sure, that can be interesting at times. But when you constantly find yourself thinking about the filmmaker or the technical aspects of a particular shot and not the character or the story… that is bad.
There is also no real narrative here to hold on to. It’s just fleeting moments of madness. And maybe that was the point. Maybe Schnabel wants us to feel the insanity of his main character. Okay. I get that. That’s interesting. But I’d rather he tell us a really good story. It doesn’t have to be a “conventional” story. Tell me something I don’t know about Van Gogh, in a way I’ve never seen before. That would be fantastic. But tell me a story. There are BEAUTIFUL moments in the film where the natural landscape fills the screen and the light envelops the lens, or where we get to see Willem Defoe paint as Van Gogh! Those moments are mesmerizing. But it’s still NOT a story. And (for me) story is everything. So, then, because there is no narrative storyline to speak of, the film drags, like plodding through molasses. It’s beautiful, sun-kissed, shallow-depth-of-field molasses, but it’s still molasses.