Every 30 years or so since Liza Minnelli's dad made Lust for Life (1956), an auteur has felt obliged to share his take on Vincent van Gogh. Given the number of potential subjects the history of art provides, this might seem a curious fixation. Why not da Vinci, Rembrandt, Picasso or Warhol?
Van Gogh's enduring pull on the popular imagination most likely arises from the inverse ratio of lifetime to posthumous acclaim. Those other visionaries were well rewarded while alive. There's something especially poignant about van Gogh dying young, penniless and unknown, given that his creations now rank among the most valuable objects ever made by humans.
Kirk Douglas' portrait of the artist was cartoonish and cliché. Thankfully, the imitation van Goghs keep getting better. Tim Roth's portrayal in Robert Altman's Vincent & Theo (1990) represented a leap in terms of realism. The movie itself was a slog.
Which brings us to At Eternity's Gate, Julian Schnabel's mystical contribution to the genre. Willem Dafoe is superb as the post-impressionist. Along with his Jesus in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Dafoe's work here proves the most sublime he's done. A world-renowned artist, Schnabel is uniquely qualified to imagine what it felt like to be van Gogh, and Dafoe is a charged conductor for his searing, sensitive vision.
Early on, Vincent encounters Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) in Paris. The friendship serves several functions in the film, giving the withdrawn figure motivation to voice his thoughts on the hardship of making a name, as well as on the influence of God and nature on his art. Gauguin's trajectory also serves as a counterpoint to Vincent's. His breakthrough leads to their separation and Vincent's intensified mental fraying. Gauguin suggests he move south, to Arles, where the light will suit his aesthetic.
Working with cowriters Jean-Claude Carrière and Louise Kugelberg, Schnabel brings the familiar to fresh and electrifying life. Other films about painters have mirrored images from well-known works in their scenery or set design. Schnabel does this, too, but with an unusually subtle touch.
The filmmaker also taught Dafoe to paint. To paint like van Gogh. We watch him apply gobs of color to his canvas, then whirl them into quivering solidity. Vincent explains that a painting has to be done fast, in a single gesture. We see why in a remarkable sequence. Vincent enters his room to find Gauguin sketching a portrait of the housekeeper. In seconds, he sets up his easel, dunks his brush and conjures an infinitely more vivid rendition of her.
Schnabel checks certain expected boxes: Vincent's touching bond with his supportive brother, Theo (Rupert Friend). The ear. The madhouses. The film's final sections, though, are extraordinary.
Vincent has an astonishing conversation with the priest who'll determine whether he's fit to be discharged from the asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. As they discuss religion, it becomes clear van Gogh has achieved transcendence. In four months, he's created nearly 200 of his greatest works. He knows this and knows with perfect certainty that, generations later, we'll know.
Smiling, he reminds the clergyman that Christ died unknown. We remember van Gogh calling art his gift to humanity. The credits roll, but Schnabel has one final flourish, a tantalizing quote relayed by Gauguin that suggests a deeper perspective on Vincent's identification with Jesus. Might there be more than one kind of messiah, more than one mortal who's dropped by to say "hi" for God? At Eternity's Gate is bold enough to ask the question and breathtaking in its answer.