There’s a trap in being an artist. Your pain is considered glamorous and essential to your work. Being a starving artist is romantic. Being a crazy artist feeds one’s legend. Even those who know next to nothing about the life of Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh know he cut off his ear. Maybe they know he painted his most famous work, Starry Night from behind the barred windows of an asylum. And maybe they believe that his madness is what made his art so beautiful. This is the trap. This is the message that tells artists of all ilks that they are meant to suffer and that their mental well-being and happiness should be sacrificed to their art if they want to be great and remembered. And regrettably, this tired and destructive message festers at the center of Julian Schnabel’s van Gogh biopic At Eternity’s Gate.
The closing night film of the 56th New York Film Festival, At Eternity’s Gate focuses on van Gogh’s time in Arles, where he befriended and fought with Paul Gauguin, painted prolifically—and many of his best-known works—all before dying of an apparent suicide at age 37. But Schnabel, whose previously helmed artist biopics Basquiat, Before Night Falls, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, has little interest in the particulars of van Gogh’s life. The bits you might most anticipate to see onscreen are lost to fade-to-blackouts, recounted only by a Vincent who doesn’t quite remember what occurred. The infamous quarrel with Gauguin, the severing of van Gogh’s ear, the painting of A Starry Night, all skipped over. Instead, Schnabel squanders screentime on pretentious twaddle. There are ponderous meandering, where a lone van Gogh seems to relish his solitude, taking in nature as the music swells overtaking all natural sounds while he sketches. There are scenes where van Gogh and Gauguin do contrived walk-and-talks where screenwriters Jean-Claude Carrière and Louise Kugelberg wedge pontifications about painting, art, and life into their mouths. And there are many many scenes of excruciating social awkwardness meant to show how cruel the world was to this wonderful artist.
In a post-screening Q&A, Schnabel spoke jovially about how he wanted to put audiences in the perspective of van Gogh, and he does so by using POV shots when the painter is stuck in a conversation that makes him uneasy. In claustrophobic close-ups, we’re made to feel too close to these characters who furrow their brows and sneer at him (and us). It’s effective in suggesting the itch of unease van Gogh may have felt when interacting with the villagers. But when heaped onto other gimmicks—like a bifocal lens that blurs the bottom of the screen—it feels less focused, and more like Schnabel throwing any idea at the wall to see what works, or at least seem deep.
The cinematography that feels, in turn, contrived or convoluted does a horrid disservice to the film’s performances. Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, and Mathieu Amalric all pop by briefly, each bringing some color. But the film’s hurried and haphazard nature robs them of any depth. Yet, Dafoe suffers most. A handheld camera swarms around van Gogh (Dafoe) in a moment alone, gawping at his face in an intrusive close-up, dropping down to his battered shoes and hole-ridden socks. Later, in an intimate scene with his loving brother (Rupert Friend), the camera’s movement is as distracting as a buzzing gnat, undercutting what could have been a truly tender scene of fraternal love. It’s a shame because Dafoe (despite being 26 years older than the late van Gogh) gives his all to capture the man’s passion for painting and nature, but also his chaffing loneliness, thirst for community, and battle with mental illness.
While Dafoe offers a performance of a man struggling to survive and thrive a madness that threatens to consume him, At Eternity’s Gate cherishes this madness as key to his greatness. The script offers only a clumsy tumble through this pivotal period yet fills van Gogh’s mouth with proclamations about how he sees the world differently from others, and perhaps was sent by God to suffer like this to speak to people not yet born. He says things like, “I need to be in a frenzied state…I don’t want to calm down. The faster I paint, the better I feel.” And “Sometimes they say I’m mad, but a grain of madness is the best of art.” And all of this is couched in a smugness that we, the audience, are better than those who surround and judge him. We are like van Gogh, seeing the beauty he saw in his work! It’s pandering to an audience who already knows the ending, and feels satisfied in their own sophistication for it. And it propagates the lie that van Gogh needed his pain to be great. He didn’t. And we don’t.
Watching At Eternity’s Gate, I thought of Hannah Gadsby’s heralded stand-up set, Nanette, in which she discusses not just her own mental health struggles but those of van Gogh.
When Van Gogh was seeking treatment, he painted up a storm. He painted beautiful things as he sought to heal himself. He not only created A Starry Night, a painting that decades later still speaks to millions around the world, but also portraits of his doctors, sunflowers, and even depictions of the medication that aided not only his health but also how he literally saw the world. As Gadsby explains, “The derivative of foxglove, if you overdose it a bit, do you know what happens? You can experience the color yellow a little too intensely. So perhaps we have the Sunflowers precisely because van Gogh medicated!”
As Gadsby points out quite deftly, this lie that artists must suffer to be great not only hurts artists, but it allows their admirers a smug satisfaction. Because we don’t have to suffer to relate to their work. We get to feel so damn special for connecting to this incredible thing and knowing it was created through suffering. We get off a bit on knowing that suffering was to appease us. Well, fuck us and fuck that. And fuck Eternity’s Gate for promoting this bullshit one more time. It’s this line of thinking that pushes creative people away from seeking therapy or medication, as it did for me for too long. And it’d be one thing to recognize the genius of van Gogh by depicting him warts and all. But instead, Schnabel celebrates the art while making its maker a tragic crackpot whom we can ogle in this snooty tragedy porn, stroking our own egos for recognizing his worth.
Header Image Source: CBS Films