My busy work schedule prevented me from catching At Eternity’s Gate during its initial theatrical run back in 2018. Fortunately, the film is now available to stream on Netflix, allowing me to finally experience this quintessentially cinematic celebration of the brilliance and madness of Vincent van Gogh.
Julian Schnabel’s quirky, unconventional, experimental visual style perfectly complements his subject. The framing is uncomfortably tight—often borderline claustrophobic—utilizing lenses that distort landscapes and facial features alike. The camerawork is loose, spontaneous, and improvisatory, making no effort to conceal the guiding hand of the operator. The color grading is carefully manipulated to evoke myriad moods and emotions—jubilant yellows and greens, melancholy blues, suffocating whites and grays. There is no pretense of naturalism; like Van Gogh—who preferred to produce his artwork quickly, chaotically applying paint to the canvas in thick layers—the director embraces the inherent artificiality of his medium.
Of course, such bold aesthetic choices run the risk of alienating the audience. Schnabel was extremely lucky, then, to have Willem Dafoe as his star; the actor’s sensitive, compassionate performance (which earned him an Oscar nomination) anchors the narrative, lending a concrete sense of humanity to the otherwise abstract, minimalistic plot.
The result is a unique and worthy addition to the informal “canon” of movies about Van Gogh (see also: Lust for Life, Vincent & Theo, Loving Vincent)—not so much a traditional biopic, but rather an impression of a tortured genius ahead of his time.