Rated PG-13, mainly for distress. Golly, I can't even think of any language in this movie. I know that it can get pretty intense with how agitated Van Gogh gets at times. I mean, he smokes and he cuts his ear off. We don't see him cutting his ear off, but we do see his bandaged head. I don't know, man. This one seems pretty innocent. I'm sure I'm blocking out some stuff. I know that the Church gives him some pretty bad advice. Oh, I guess he does drink a lot. That's something, I guess. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Julian Schnabel
Two years in a row now, we have gotten Vincent Van Gogh biopics. What I've learned is the people of France are terrible to artists and the mentally ill. What is it about Van Gogh that tempts filmmakers to make the same tonal movie as the other? It's the whole pairing thing that happens with movies. But both movies kind of committed the same crimes, which I suppose is fine.
Like everyone else in the world, I love Van Gogh. And like most people in the world, saying that I love Van Gogh means that I like Van Gogh, as long as studying him doesn't become too invasive. I've taken one class on classical painters and I get some rudimentary stuff about painting that perhaps Tom, Dick, or Harry don't know. But I've never been a visual artist. I am obsessed with being culturally literate, but there's only so much that one can fit into one's day before one's head melts into a beautiful landscape that Van Gogh himself could have painted. I'm ashamed of myself in many ways. I got really obsessed with Van Gogh with Doctor Who. It was "Vincent and the Doctor" that got me interested in Van Gogh and his mental illness. I know who I am and I'm not going to apologize. But Van Gogh's life is tempting to cover. I think we want the greats to have really interesting lives. But as proven by the string of biopics that I've watched lately (I'm looking at you, Bohemian Rhapsody), some of the greats don't really have intersting lives. I don't think that the same applies to Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh actually has some real formal beats to his life. He died a mysterious death. We know that people tortured him for the majority of his painting career. We also knew that he dealt with real mental illness. Now, these stories range from what we see in At Eternity's Gate, as borderline schizophrenia to bipolar disorder and depression, as seen in Loving Vincent and "Vincent and the Doctor". That's an interesting story to tell. It's just that our recent obsession with dramatizing Vincent Van Gogh's life is the biggest hurdle that this movie needs to overcome.
If At Eternity's Gate was the only film to cover this ground, I would probably think that this movie had a degree of genius. The movie is plenty competent. I adore the casting overall. I don't know why I'm on board the Willem Dafoe train lately. I think it was his work in The Florida Project last year that got me excited to hear that he might get the Academy Award this year. Oscar Isaac is also absolutely brilliant. I want to see him in everything. It's weird that I'm watching the very serious acting of Poe Dameron and the Green Goblin. But these are both talented actors who chew the scenery of every moment. I adore them in this. But I also don't know if it's the role that defined them. Honestly, if Dafoe gets it (which I don't think that he will), this might be the apology award for not getting it with The Florida Project. The dynamic between these two actors is something to behold because they are portraying these two giants who apparently knew each other. (I don't want to take a hard line about them knowing each other because I don't remember much about that class I took years ago.) But Gauguin across from Van Gogh is interesting. I'm teaching my English II class about what makes an interesting foil and Gauguin is perfect as a foil for Van Gogh. There's a lot of interpretation of what could have been having Gauguin in the movie. They both are obsessed with art. They both actually seem to like each other. But Gauguin is this man of charisma. He is as outgoing and forward as Van Gogh, but he comes across as charming as Van Gogh comes across as psychotic and demanding. I don't know if the message revolves around who is the true master. I know that people view Van Gogh as the greatest painter of all time. But Gauguin isn't exactly a spring chicken. Part of the story involves Gauguin constantly telling Van Gogh what he's doing wrong in his art. Schnabel doesn't create a Mozart / Salieri situation a la Amadeus. Rather, it seems like Gauguin doesn't quite understand Van Gogh or doesn't want to understand Van Gogh. I think that he is one of the few people who understands that Van Gogh is a genius, but still underestimates him. I'm not sure if the movie really knows what its stance on Gauguin is, but it is interesting having him as a foil.
There are certain elements of Van Gogh's insanity in this movie that really effective and there are parts that are way less effective. The movie employs this yellow filter over the screen. It also looks like they are bifocals somehow because there's a line of blur between the top and bottom of the screen. The first person perspective builds a sense of anxiety and stress that I haven't seen a lot. The weird part about the use of the very yellow wash is that it kind of matches the scenery of Van Gogh's world. It never seems to clash with the beauty of the rest of the film. (I never mentioned this earlier, but I'll throw it in right now. The movie's setting is gorgeous, as it should be.) It never actually creates a sense of insanity. Vincent's actions still seem wrong and misguided, but we at least can get into a different headspace with the visual shift. The thing that doesn't work for me as well is the looping of the audio. The film loves having Vincent experience what he just heard repeated immediately after it is said. I don't know. It's an idea that I would have loved on paper, but probably would have scrapped when I realized that it didn't work. I don't mind the cacophony that eventually starts forming from the repetition. But the repetition is used too often and too tightly together. Yeah, it conveys that Vincent has a hard time determining what is real and what is false, but it also completely pulls me out of the movie. This is a bigger deal than I'd care to admit because this is the movie that deals with Vincent's madness more than the other biopics. This movie stresses that Vincent should have had a healthier wellness plan and that's what stopped him from being healthy. Oddly enough, the movie has a really odd way of concluding this thread with his death. All three Vincent Van Gogh stories treat his death very differently. This movie posits that Vincent was murdered by two oddly dressed kids who wanted to bury his painting equipment. There is no leadup to this. I was fortunate enough to see Hamilton last night. I'm so amazed that Schnabel doesn't ever tease the end of the film. Perhaps Schnabel is shooting to talk about the randomness of an unfair universe, but it doesn't really come across this way. The movie just kind of ends. There's this comment that Van Gogh never really talked about how he died, implying that there might be a bit of mystery. But the film really isn't about this. It's actually odd that the movie has to have him die. I don't know if it is meant to make you more depressed about the fact that Van Gogh never found happiness or peace. But it is just done. The movie just ends. We know that Van Gogh died. Why not add that to the tag at the end. Let us know that he never found happiness. Instead, the movie just kind of finishes.
There's nothing wrong with At Eternity's Gate. It's just that, structurally, I don't get too much from what I've seen in other adaptations. Why do we keep doing this? Is this Academy Awards show going to be a celebration of things we've seen done before. With Loving Vincent, we at least had the gimmick of the oil painting format that hadn't been done before. But At Eternity's Gate, we just get a slight shift in focus. I mean, the movie also shares the biggest sin, showing where Van Gogh got his inspiration. We had all of those moments of famous paintings walking around, waiting to be painted. I get it. Those people existed. But these moments are starting to get me massaging my temples. These movies are just full of moments that are meta and pull me out of the movie. I don't want these movies to be better. I just want something different. It's beautifully performed and the scenery is gorgeous, but that isn't enough to make me rave about this movie. Give me a few years. Maybe I'll revisit this and be okay. But I just absorbed Loving Vincent. I don't need one immediately following.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.