William Dafoe looks uncannily like Vincent Van Gogh’s self-portraits.
At first sight, it seems odd for director Julian Schnabel to choose a 63-year-old actor to play the role of the tormented 37-year-old artist, but Dafoe’s performance in At Eternity’s Gate is a tour de force.
So well does he portray Van Gogh’s passionate and erratic character that you emerge from the film with a compelling sense of how life must have been for the lonely, misplaced artist.
Director Schnabel, himself a painter, does not attempt to produce a biographical account of Van Gogh’s life.
The film is focused on his last two years from 1888 to his death at 37 in 1890, a period when he is painting furiously in the south of France, churning out more than 200 works in 15 months.
When his friend, the French painter Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), tries to persuade him to slow down, to apply less paint to his canvasses, Van Gogh says,” Paintings have to be fast. When I paint, I feel better.”
He certainly needs the comfort he finds in painting. He had moved from Paris to Arles, where he is captivated by the brilliance of the light and the colours of the bucolic surroundings, but his odd behaviour so antagonises the citizens of Arles that they ban him from the town.
He is mocked by the children and retaliates by shouting at them. They throw stones at him and their fathers beat him up. The people laugh at his extraordinary paintings, the like of which no one has ever seen before.
His only support is his loved brother Theo (Rupert Friend), who lives in Paris and sends him a small living allowance.
A poignant scene which captures Vincent’s sense of bewilderment and helplessness is when Theo visits him in hospital and climbs into bed with him, hugging him like a child.
Benoit Delhomme’s cinematography wonderfully captures the sunny landscapes of the south of France which are reminiscent of so many of Van Gogh’s paintings.
But the wobbly hand-held camera work is often hard to take. In an effort to reflect Van Gogh’s shaky grip on sanity, Delhomme’s camera dances wildly backwards and forwards in intense close-ups, almost sending the viewer giddy.
Mads Mikkelsen (Arctic) makes an appearance as a priest who has been summoned to the asylum to advise on whether it is safe to release Van Gogh from custody. He confronts the artist with one of his works, the now-celebrated Landscape with Rabbits.
“You call this a painting?” he asks. “Why do you say you are a painter?”
Van Gogh: “Because I love painting. I have to paint.”
He is freed but not for long. Soon afterwards he is shot in the stomach, and he dies days later.
Schnabel challenges the popular view that Van Gogh committed suicide. On his deathbed he says he has never had a gun; the origin of the gunshot remains a mystery.
At Eternity’s Gate screens at the Somerville Auditorium from Monday, January 21 to Sunday, January 27, at 8pm (at 8.30pm on January 26, Australia Day); and at ECU Joondalup Pines from Tuesday, January 29 to Sunday, February 3, at 8pm.
Watch the trailer…