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Schnabel reminds us that we must suffer for our art in 'At Eternity’s Gate'

At Eternity’s Gate is painter/director Julian Schnabel’s latest film, starring Williem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh, Rupert Friend as his brother Theo Van Gogh, Oscar Isaac as his close friend Paul Gauguin and Mads Mikkelson as a priest. The crew includes French cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, editor Louise Kugelberg and composer Tatiana Lisovskaya. The film closely follows the story of Van Gogh’s life, exploring his conflicting state of mind along with how the world around him was unwilling to accept him or his art.

Image: Allociné.fr

The film creates this wonderful dance of crafts. The cinematography, acting, editing, music, and plethora more art forms, play with beautiful synaesthesia, merging Gogh’s vivid painting with motion picture magic. Schnabel and Delhomme’s maverick style of filmmaking, with no storyboards or shot lists, but rather just camera experimentation makes the film feel fiercely raw. A strikingly emotive scene captures Gogh walking through fields, yet it was not Dafoe’s feet that were filmed, but rather the cinematographers. This allowed so much more freedom as we could really see from Gogh’s perspective, allowing us to immerge into every joy he felt, every pain that he struggled with.

The director notably concerns himself with the style of the film—with these incredible landscapes in a vividly yellow tint, the wind blowing through the fields, Dafoe revelling in the beauty—the picture becomes a painting itself. What is so incredible is that the cinematographer manages to make sure that each still within the film could be a picture frozen in time—something so many try, and yet fail to achieve.

Most importantly, the picture makes you feel alive, it creates this urgency for you to make something beautiful, to create your own piece of art that defines you as a person. There is an incredible existential feel to the film where Gogh is constantly questioned about why he paints. We are persistently told that it is because he wants to make people feel “alive”; it is his purpose. This is where the script really shines, as we are given these vast questions about our very being; the brilliant Mads Mikkelsen delivers the line, 'do you think God gave you the gift of painting to keep you in misery?', with such intrusive potency. Yet, this so called “gift” of painting is perpetually critiqued by not only Mikkelsen’s character but nearly every character in the film. We are reminded that an artist must suffer for his art. Dafoe inspiringly delivers Gogh’s line 'I find joy in sorrow…illness can sometimes heal us'; this relentless need, despite the objections of his critiques, to feel as deeply and wholly as possible brings such emotion to a dark vast theatre.

The colours of the film are incredible, with potent blues and yellow. There is this mimesis as each new colour represents Gogh’s emotions, whilst simultaneously mimicking Gogh’s own paintings. The use of the tinted lenses, as opposed to extensive colour grading creates a more realistic feel to the colours, crafting vividly intense colours to fill the screen. Yet as the cinematographer states, 'they never wanted it to look like a Van Gogh painting', but the colours came back to them in an 'unconscious way'.

Image: Allociné.fr

What is perhaps even more remarkable is Delhomme’s use of light. The light fluctuates depending on the mood of our protagonist, creating an intensely immersive effect, convincing us that we too are experiencing these heightened emotions of Gogh. Delhomme explain, 'I worked with natural light as much as I could, to the extreme; I was [opening] the iris myself. When I was shooting inside, I would light through the window, as van Gogh would do'.

The camera angles, too, create this strangely uncomfortable composition to the film, there is this blend between landscape and close up shots, yet the close ups become landscapes, even sometimes portraits. Often, we are shown scenes where the camera just shows the other character and never captures our protagonist, this unconventional style can sometimes be intimidating, yet it further creates this bond with Gogh, and allows us to see through his strange lens. The shots can, however, become alienating at times, with the extreme shakiness border-lining on nausea, yet this is the world that Gogh was experiencing. This panic, this urgency, we too must experience how our protagonist was alienated from society. An awfully touching scene follows Gogh’s and his painter-friend Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). We see the painter leave Gogh through a series of haunting overlaying shots. This is where Delhomme use of splitting the camera image with a dioptre really comes to life. The bottom layer of the screen is intensely blurred, acting as this blue mist, this overriding panic, this tragedy. The tears in Gogh’s eyes add to this terrified pathos, making it a really hard scene to watch. The deep, vivid blues add to this sad hue and remind of us of the extreme mental struggles that Gogh experienced. This particular scene showcased the unbelievable talent of both Isaac and Dafoe.

The urgent panic of the tortured Dutch painter is beautifully captured by Williem Dafoe, whilst the reassuringly friendly figure of fellow artist is thoughtfully played by the lovely Oscar Isaac. This companionship between the painters encapsulated one of the prevalent factors of Gogh’s mental decline as we Isaac’s character points out that Gogh is stuck in this small town 'surrounded by stupid, ignorant, wicked people'. Gogh’s art is constantly mocked, ridiculed, and it is only after this scene that we see our protagonist subject himself to questioning this: 'maybe God made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet'.

In addition, Tatiana Lisovskaya composition adds depth of emotions, with the potent piano chords enhancing the mad panic that Gogh experiences, sometimes making it agonising to listen to. Whilst the softer notes add a romantic lyricality to the character, reminding us that Gogh sees such beauty in the everyday, illuminating his relationship with nature. The scenes, like the cinematography were cut together depending on the emotion of Gogh. The sporadic cuts almost made it seem like there was a technical error with the screen remaining black longer than supposed. It added to this alienation caused by the shots and took us out of the film for a moment, only to pull us right back in, with our mind and body submersing back into the story. What is so special about this film is that none of the crew stuck to technicalities, as Delhomme explains 'I didn’t care about beauty. I didn’t care if the frame was perfect. I cared about the soul of the shot- and Van Gogh’s soul'.

At Eternity’s Gate, an art-house biopic, delights in being an experimentalist film. Whilst at times it can become somewhat hard to follow, with sometimes heavy music, and shaky camera shots that can seem unbearable, it is a strong aide-mémoire to the mental health issues that Van Gogh suffered with. Although we only experience this for a couple of hours, it is an everlasting reminder of our own relationship to eternity through whichever art-form we are connected to. We are reminder that although 'a grain of madness is the best of art', it comes with a subjugation to suffering for one’s art; something that I am sure we can all resonate with.

Edited by Evangeline Stanford, Digital Editor

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