Hey Ho, Van Gogh

At Eternity’s Gate (Julian Schnabel, 2018)

If you need to know — I didn’t know — At Eternity’s Gate is a late painting by Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh, of an old man with his head in his hands, based on earlier designs. Van Gogh didn’t get to be an old man, having (spoiler) shot himself in the stomach whilst not in a fit state. He is the poster boy for artist as mad, tortured genius, seller of a single painting in his life time and now worth millions per canvas.

Willem Dafoe is a reasonable facsimile, despite being some quarter of a century older than Van Gogh at his death. Absinthe makes the heart grow older. Dafoe learnt to paint like the artist and draw like the artist, which is impressive, and enough French for the random parts that come with subtitles. He is convincingly manic, especially in the later scenes when he is comparing himself to Christ; there comes the belated memory of his appearance in Last Temptation of Christ. We get endless shots of him tramping the fields and wandering through sunflowers past their best and his feet and it’s somewhat of a surprise that there’s a Steadicam being used in the film, given the shaky nature of all the handheld stuff.

The soundtrack is overpowering, crashing chords on a piano and repeated, sometimes overlapping, dialogue, clearly intended to take us into his state of mind, but not a little annoying.

Van Gogh has his apocrypha, of course — did he cut off his ear? (the film thinks so, though it’s reversed from the paintings) how is his named pronounced (the film seems to have several, including the gutteral Hock) and how did he die? (the film goes for a controversial narrative of accidental homicide, on the grounds that his paintings look cheerful so he can’t have killed himself…)

Part of me was longing to see what Derek Jarman would have done with the materials and how far he’d cut through the fetish for period detail. And how he’d make us see eternity in a flower.

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