How an artist translate a sensory experience… though the eyes of Van Gogh

The film “At Eternity’s Gate” is an exercise in how an artist translates a sensory experience in their art. In this respect the film is a success. It’s definitely not a perfect film. The choices of perspective, and visual representation are a bit inconsistent in quality. This movie has a strength in a strong artistic voice. The movie goes into wonderful detail in terms of reproducing the artist’s visual process.

First of all, the title is kind of dumb. It’s inclusion in the film is effectively incorporated. I just feel the choice of these words sound more like a soap opera, and less like the title of a movie about the greatest artists who has ever lived.

 

Yes, artists really do talk like the characters do in the film

It’s easy to assume that artists do not have the kind of conversations that occur between Dafoe’s Vincent and Oscar Isaac’s Paul Gaughan. However, artists of the level of these individuals are usually highly educated in the technique, history, and intellectual acumen of their craft. Keep in mind this was also a time in history when artists where still discovering new things about the world. There was a need to challenge the accepted norm in art. Today we have an abundance of information and years of artistic progression to draw on. It’s easy to think “well I guess it’s all been done.” That point is when you know it’s time to question what you do and how it’s done. This movie captures that need to strive further perfectly. The debates between Paul and Vincent are some of the most interesting dialog in the film.
Depending on an actor’s background and the directors vision, dialog is usually presented in different ways. Actors with a background in theatre may present their speaking parts in a completely different manner than television or film actors. Sometimes this may create an “unbelievable” association with the presentation. That’s not really a fair judgement per se, but this is a film presenting a real person’s life. So in that regards it’s kind of up to the viewer and the creators to have some sort of synchronicity. In this case I think it works great.

The artist and an intimate relationship with nature

The movie portrays Van Gogh’s interpersonal relationships as being filled with conflict (aside from his brother). His personal relationship with nature appears very nurturing. Every artist has a sort of emotional response to their creative process. I personally don’t always have the same one depending on what I am working on creatively. Most artists are at their most intimate with nature when they are studying. There’s something mentally stimulating finding new sensory experiences as you study concepts like perspective, color theory, proportion, and even sounds. You tend to become more sensitive to these experiences when you are not making art.

Van Gogh’s vision and mental illness

This movie does make an earnest attempt at representing the mental illness that plagued Vincent Van Gogh. There’s a celebrated episode of Dr. Who that included Van Gogh as an important character. While that episode (and it’s conclusion) are a wonderful tribute to the artist, the shows representation of mental illness now comes harshly into question following this movie. Granted it’s Dr. Who, and it can be expected to exaggerate and embellish.

This movie does take a very tender and empathetic approach to representing mental illness. I am not entirely sure the representation of his lapses in time are accurate, but I am not an expert on psychology.

That camera work was puzzling

There are times in the film when the extremely choppy and wobbly camera work make sense. The increasing disorientation could be seen as a representation of Vincent’s deteriorating mental state. However, lack of focus can be very jarring due to it’s inconsistency. There are times when the film literally shines, and times when it feels like there was not much thought put into it. I do get that there are things about hand held cinematography that are very intentional. It just gets very distracting at times, and it’s hard to really process some moments to the level of effect that’s intended. It just takes me out of the movie at times.

Despite some issues, the movie does hold up mostly well

I ended up posting this review bit late. However, it is important to note I had to take my time thinking about this film. There are some extremely great moments where Dafoe portrays Van Gogh’s creative routine and painting technique. This movie was definitely directed by a painter. The scenes where Dafoe is just out lost in nature are very beautiful and add some much needed levity to the later scenes where the character is struggling with Mental Illness. If I sound slightly negative in some parts of the article, keep in mind that I did write most of this at the time the movie came out. It was a really loving and fitting tribute to Van Gogh, his family, Paul Gauguin, and French Post-impressionism in general.