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Review: In Julian Schnabel's Van Gogh biopic 'At Eternity's Gate,' an artist explores an artist

“At Eternity’s Gate” is at its heart not necessarily only about a particular individual. It’s about what it feels like to be an artist, to be overwhelmed and obsessed with the unavoidable need to bring art into the world.

Vincent van Gogh is no stranger to a theater near you. More than a dozen motion pictures tell his story (1956’s “Lust For Life” starring Kirk Douglas takes pride of place), making his tortured existence perhaps the most film-friendly of artistic lives.

So it’s saying quite a bit, with apologies to Mr. Douglas’ landmark work, that “At Eternity’s Gate” makes you feel like you’ve not really seen Van Gogh on screen before.

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That happens in part because “At Eternity’s Gate” is at its heart not necessarily only about a particular individual. It’s about what it feels like to be an artist, to be overwhelmed and obsessed with the unavoidable need to bring art into the world.

It also happens because “At Eternity’s Gate” is a tribute from one painter to another — to the tormented Dutch artist from director Julian Schnabel, who had considerable success with the brush before he began making films like “Basquiat” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”

The most important choice Schnabel made was one he says he never thought twice about, and that was offering the lead part to his friend of more than 30 years, Willem Dafoe.

The veteran actor, who’s played everything from Green Goblin in “Spider-Man” to Jesus in “The Last Temptation of Christ,” gives an extraordinary performance here.

Dafoe’s work, the look in his searching, despairing eyes, feels beyond conventional acting, using intuition as well as technique to go deeply into the character, putting us in Van Gogh’s presence. Dafoe was the unanimous jury choice for best actor at the Venice Film Festival, and it is not hard to see why.

“At Eternity’s Gate” has yet another essential artistic collaborator, and that is adventurous French cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, whose work includes the gorgeous “The Scent of Green Papaya.”

Completely absorbed in creating the imagery Schnabel insisted on, Delhomme, at the director’s suggestion, even put on a pair of pants and shoes identical to the ones Dafoe wore and photographed himself tirelessly trudging through wheat fields.

Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh in Julian Schnabel's "At Eternity's Gate."
Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh in Julian Schnabel's "At Eternity's Gate." (Lily Gavin/ Elevation Pictures)

Much of Dafoe’s performance is in fact wordless. We are immersed in the natural world along with the artist, becoming as absorbed as he is with experiencing and painting the out of doors while Tatiana Lisovskaya’s effectively dissonant piano score plays in the background.

That is a good thing, because “At Eternity’s Gate’s” dialogue, though effective at times, is not the film’s strength. Written by the veteran Jean-Claude Carrière (a long-time collaborator of Luis Buñuel), Schnabel and Louise Kugelberg, its flat, unconvincing nature contrasts with the film’s absorbing visual essence.

“At Eternity’s Gate” starts with a black screen, with Van Gogh in effect talking or thinking to himself, expressing a poignant desire “to be one of them,” to be treated as a regular guy by regular folks.

Instead, we are introduced to an individual compelled to do the things he does and be the way he is. Someone who lacks a gift for people, for whom the actions and motivations of fellow humans are fated to be forever a mystery.

The first significant human contact we see comes after a meeting of fellow artists when Van Gogh connects with the disaffected Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), who wants to “get as far away from these people as possible.” He advises Van Gogh to head south to Arles to paint, advice he promptly takes.

Most people in that small town don’t know what to make of the artist, but he is befriended by Madame Ginoux (Emmanuelle Seigner), the wife of the local innkeeper who helps him get set up in the yellow house next door.

The person Van Gogh is in constant contact with, both by letter and the occasional personal visit, is his brother Theo (Rupert Friend), and the film touchingly portrays the great love that passes between the two of them.

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A visit to Arles by Gauguin, the only artist Van Gogh felt a kinship with, is both terribly exciting and fated to end badly, and Dafoe beautifully conveys how bereft Van Gogh felt when Gauguin left and how that event led to the celebrated cutting off of part of an ear.

That incident got Van Gogh sent first to the hospital at Arles and then an asylum in Saint-Remy. (Which is apparently still in operation and served as a location for the film.)

Saint-Remy is the site for the film’s most effective dialogue sequence, a colloquy between Van Gogh and a priest (impeccably played by Mads Mikkelsen) charged with figuring out exactly how deranged this man may or may not be.

That conversation allows the film to cement its portrait of Van Gogh as not a mad man at all but rather as an almost childlike believer in the power, integrity and inevitability of art, someone who is serenely confident that “what I see nobody else sees.”

“At Eternity’s Gate” takes an intriguing approach to the facts of Van Gogh’s life and work. The film is respectful of the reality of his paintings, and recognizing celebrated subjects like the luxuriantly bearded postmaster at Arles and the sympathetic Dr. Felix Rey (Vladimir Consigny) is part of the project’s fun.

Yet the film also lends its authority to some debatable theories — for instance, the controversial notion that the artist’s death was not a suicide.

Speaking to all of this, Schnabel puckishly calls “At Eternity’s Gate” an accumulation of “common agreement about events in his life that parade as facts, hearsay, and scenes that are just plain invented.”

Yet such is the power of Schnabel’s vision and his personal connection to Van Gogh’s art that when he says, as he has, that “you’ll see the movie and you’ll believe,” he’s telling nothing but the truth.

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‘At Eternity’s Gate’

Rating: PG-13 for some thematic content

Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes

Playing: ArcLight, Hollywood, Landmark, West Los Angeles

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