Few artists have held a greater fascination for dramatists than Vincent Van Gogh. He's been played on film by Kirk Douglas, John Hurt, Tim Roth and Martin Scorsese, and he's palled around with the Doctor on "Doctor Who."
At this late date, there would seem to be little new to dramatize -- or stylize -- about a man so often scrutinized on screen. But Julien Schnabel's "At Eternity's Gate" finds a filmmaker (and, not incidentally, a painter) in kinship with his subject. Add a deeply resonant performance by Willem Dafoe, and everything old feels new again.
Named after a late-period Van Gogh painting, "At Eternity's Gate" takes what might be called a post-impressionist tack in telling the story of the greatest post-impressionistic painter. Where 2017's "Loving Vincent" did so visually, Schnabel's film finds its analogues both visual and dramatic. The casting of Dafoe challenges the literal-minded, given that the actor is in his early 60s and Van Gogh died in his late 30s, while the very fine screenplay by Schnabel, Louise Kugelberg and Jean-Claude Carrière (no slouch: he co-wrote "The Tin Drum," "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," and several Luis Bunuel classics) plants the roots for Schnabel's dreamy drift through Van Gogh's latter days by shuffling artistic ecstasies, self-dissecting conversations and confusions, and existential torments.
On a surface level, "At Eternity's Gate" beguiles by shooting at Van Gogh's old haunting grounds, conveying the sun-dappled beauty of the French countryside in a manner that introduces the reality of the landscape to the vision of the artist (by goosing beautiful cinematography with just-so color-correction, photographic frames magically evoke Van Gogh's canvases). As impressive as these reveries can be, when they arrive to meditatively check out of the film's already relaxed narrative momentum, the film's most memorable moments come from its series of penetrating philosophical conversations.
Taking Vincent's loving bond with brother Theo (Rupert Friend) as a given, "At Eternity's Gate" delves deeper in its duets between the artist and his typically baffled friends and acquaintances. Van Gogh develops a co-dependent friendship with one of the few men who might understand him, fellow painter Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). When he consoles the unappreciated Van Gogh, Gauguin speaks for Schnabel: "You're surrounded by stupid, wicked, ignorant people."
Feeling he's an "exile" whenever he faces others, Van Gogh confesses to a priest (Mads Mikkelsen), "Sometimes I feel so far away from everything."
Their discussion in an asylum courtyard rests somewhere on a spectrum of confession, therapy and civilized theological debate. While painting the portrait of Dr. Paul Gachet (Mathieu Amalric), Van Gogh muses, "I stop thinking, and I feel that I'm a part of everything outside and inside of me" and "sometimes they say I'm mad, but a grain of madness is the best of art."
Even as Van Gogh's struggles with mental illness play out, his imagined tete-a-tetes with doctors and priests here allow Schnabel to grant his ill health while still challenging the skewed perceptions that constantly limit the artist. When his detractors paint him with the broad brush of madness, the painter only slips deeper into madness, seeing his clear-headed artistic genius (and his entirely reasonable frustrations) dismissed as crazy. Though Van Gogh's brushstrokes of genius were thick, the line between genius and madman has ever been thin.