In his final years, Vincent Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) battles vicious critics of his work and his own inner demons.
While Vincent and Loving Vincent are retrospective views of the artist after his untimely death, At Eternity’s Gate is an up-close portrait of Van Gogh during his productive final years. In seeking to get as close to him as possible it goes so far as to take us inside his head with first-person camera work and the echoed voices of criticism and anxiety ringing in his mind. As he’s derided by his peers and hounded by children he builds up almost Elephant Man levels of pity, while never laying it on as thick as Van Gogh himself did in his paintings.
While substantially older than the impoverished post-impressionist at the time of his death, Dafoe gives a sensitive and emotional performance, with a sufficient degree of physical similarity. And like Timothy Spall in Mr Turner he really learned to reproduce the artist’s paintings for the film.
While it may not be as technically innovative as Loving Vincent, which achieved the incredible feat of animating oil paintings, it nonetheless uses a full colouring box to achieve its goals. The breathtaking cinematography, in many of the real locations painted by the artist, combines the eye-popping colour of his work with naturalistic shooting that keeps us in the moment. And the sight of Dafoe out in a gorgeously shot countryside will bring back memories of The Hunter.
It goes deeper into his art than those other stories inspired by his life, focusing on his friendship with fellow artist Paul Gaugin (Oscar Isaac), with whom he discusses at length the role of art and his own methods. It also casts doubt on some of the key events from his life – his self-Reservoir Dogsing as a gift to his estranged artist friend and his suicide re-interpreted as an accidental shooting by a pair of miscreants.
Through innovative methods and a refocused story it finds new angles on an oft-told story and continues to feed fascination with the ultimate tortured artist in a way which is both respectful and intriguing.