The Oscars took place over a month ago and I’m still banging on about them. I know I know. Broken record much? But it’s one if the biggest and most controversial events in the movie lovers calendar. For the most part, this year wasn’t the most exciting. Once again, many amazing and worthy films/directors/actors were ignored and many worthy films/directors/actors got looked over for more Oscar-y films/directors/actors. I write this in the midst of Steven Spielberg’s outrageous idea to get Netflix films banned from being nominated in the future. I’d love to go into that whole argument now and rant about Spielberg’s general irrelevance these days but, as it’s my birthday, I feel like I should take the high road. So, instead let’s talk about one of the biggest surprises that came out of last Saturday that was also one of the most underwhelming. Rami Malek gave a great performance as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody and I think that he definitely deserved the win. However, I don’t think many were convinced he would. The Best Actor category was incredibly boring this year as there was no real stand-out. The most remarkable performance for me? Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh. It’s a shame he lost out to it but it’s an even bigger shame that his loss isn’t as a big of a deal as it should be.
I have a lot of negative thoughts about Steven Moffat’s tenure as Doctor Who showrunner. Most of the episodes are unremarkable or boring. There are a couple of stand-out moments, of course. One of the most powerful being ‘Vincent and the Doctor’. The final scenes in that episode are some of the most emotional that have ever appeared in the show. It always makes me cry. So, as stupid as it may seem, this film had a lot to live up to. But it all sounded promising. A fantastic actor playing one of the world’s most beloved painters in a film directed by a painter. I mean if anyone was going to come together to tell the story of van Gogh’s final years Willem Dafoe and Julian Schnabel seemed like the guys to do it.
At Eternity’s Gate follows Vincent’s (Dafoe) journey to Paris and on to the South of France. We see him meeting Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), dreaming of setting up an artist’s commune with him, and breaking down once he leaves. The loss of Gauguin leads to the infamous moment when Vincent cuts off his ear and leads to a stay in a mental hospital. We see the hardships that Vincent faced and the sadness of his lonely life. The people around him fear and mock him as a person and an artist. He is unappreciated and ignored by nearly everyone. The only person who supports him constantly is his brother Theo (Rupert Friend).
The one thing this film makes sure to get across is that, despite everything, van Gogh kept his passion for painting. His need to put paint onto canvas. The frenzied camera movements used during moments when he is creating show how lost he becomes to his art. Schnabel uses the camera in quite clever ways throughout the film as Vincent’s mood shifts. In the quieter and most depressed moments the movements are more sombre and directly conflicts with its more violent motions. The greatest moments of this film are the ones in which Vincent simply paints. Where he becomes lost in the moment and can see nothing but his art. We see the landscapes on-screen through Vincent’s eyes. The potential there is. The colours.
But there we come across a problem of sorts. There is a huge danger when dealing such a prolific artists a van Gogh that a director might start to emulate his style a bit too eagerly. The use of colour is most striking throughout this film but there are moments when it feels more of a gimmick than an authentic aesthetic choice. To put it another way, it is a little bit too artistic at times. I can see why it wasn’t a considerably popular release despite the praise that has been heaped upon it. It is a watchable film and a decent portrayal of Vincent’s life but, it has to be said, without the central performance of Willem Dafoe it would be unremarkable.
Thankfully, Dafoe gives an outstanding performance as van Gogh. He captures everything about the painter that people love so much. He brings a realism to the painter and manages to make us feel sympathy for him without overplaying it. Van Gogh has resonated with people so much over the years because he never gave up his dream. He persisted even when everyone around him was saying no. And Dafoe manages to bring that tenacity and passion to the screen. We understand why painting was so important to him. Why he felt it was his destiny to carry on. It’s just a shame that Schnabel didn’t have the same passion as his subject when it came to making this film. It could have been so much more given a little more self-awareness.