Seeing as how Vincent van Gogh died at 37 and Willem Dafoe is 63, it’s a pretty impressive trick for Dafoe to make such a convincing van Gogh in “At Eternity’s Gate.
Such is the range and versatility of Dafoe.
The actor’s angular, arresting, jagged facial features also happen to be a good match for van Gogh’s visage (not to mention van Gogh’s image of himself on canvas, a grim-faced, world-weary, haunted man who has grown old before his time).
OK, so we’re fine — better than fine — with Dafoe as van Gogh. We buy it and then some.
My issues weren’t with the casting but with the distractingly jazzy filming style; the irritating reliance on a certain technique to symbolize van Gogh’s tenuous grasp on reality; a sometimes intrusively melodramatic score, and some tedious sequences in which Vincent struggles to explain himself to authority figures who will never appreciate the measure of his genius.
The director and co-writer of “At Eternity’s Gate” is the renowned artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel (“Before Night Falls,” “The Diving Bell and Butterfly”).
One would hardly expect the wildly creative Schnabel to deliver a conventional biopic, especially given all the movies about van Gogh already out there. Why bother?
Sure enough, there are moments when “At Eternity’s Gate” is stunningly effective and moving, e.g., a scene in which the defeated, exhausted, dead-broke Vincent kicks off his shabby and worn boots — and then takes a step back, considers the moment, and makes magnificent, lasting art by painting said boots.
But such isolated glimpses of originality and poetry aren’t enough to offset the long and often tiresome attempts to dissect van Gogh’s mindset.
After a quick flash-forward to an unsettling encounter between van Gogh and a young woman he has just met, “At Eternity’s Gate” takes us to the Paris of the 1880s, where the temperamental, socially awkward (at best) van Gogh is painting at a prolific pace — and of course having zero commercial success. He strikes up a friendship with the equally mercurial Gaugin (Oscar Isaac), who tells Vincent he must GET OUT OF PARIS IMMEDIATELY so he can find true inspiration, away from all the pressures of conventional society.
Scraping by on monthly stipends from his kindly brother Theo (Rupert Friend in a strong and empathetic performance), van Gogh often takes his paints and easel into the chilly day, soaking in the sun-dappled countryside and creating with feverish intensity.
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At the same time, the artist is losing his grip on reality and experiencing violent mood swings, much to the consternation of the local townsfolk. Vincent is elated when his friend Gaugin comes for a visit, and the two artists engage in lengthy, rambling discussions about the nature of art. (In a gimmick more annoying than insightful, certain snippets of dialogue are repeated as if on a loop — I guess to indicate the disturbing echo chambers in van Gogh’s mind.)
When Gaugin leaves, van Gogh is so despondent he cuts off his ear — which leads to two momentum-stopping scenes, as first a doctor and then a priest attempt to understand Vincent’s anguish. (The doctor seems sincere, if baffled. The priest is a harshly judgmental cultural luddite.)
Although the ever-changing photographic palette of “At Eternity’s Gate” makes for some gorgeous visuals, the hand-held camera often jiggles about as if we’re watching a modern-day documentary. At times it feels as if the dialogue is improvised; on other occasions, as when van Gogh says perhaps he’s a “painter for people who haven’t been born yet,” it sounds like prescient speechifying.
Dafoe’s Vincent is a tormented, almost childlike soul who is never comfortable in his own skin, and veers from being monumentally needy to frighteningly rash. It’s a mesmerizing performance in an inconsistent and uneven film.
‘At Eternity’s Gate’
CBS Films presents a film directed by Julian Schnabel and written by Schnabel and Jean-Claude Carrière. Rated PG-13 (for some thematic content). Running time: 110 minutes. Opens Wednesday at Landmark Century Centre.