The casting of actors for their expressive faces and vivid personalities in large and small roles is one of the triumphs of Julian Schnabel’s Vincent Van Gogh biopic At Eternity’s Gate. But first, before detailing why, a brief word on the politics of modern movie faces:
A fascinating, then discomforting, F/X in Aquaman manipulates the middle-aged features of Willem Dafoe and Nicole Kidman, playing denizens of the Deep, so that they look youthful again. They’re digitally Botoxed, a silly deception we also see in On the Basis of Sex, in the casting of dewy, bucktoothed Felicity Jones as the young Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Girl Scout in a pencil skirt. One suffers through this sappy hagiography, looking for an explanation of what would make a Supreme Court justice, in old age, offend protocol and inappropriately comment on presidential behavior, as RBG recently has made a habit of doing. No rationale is provided in this hagiography that is obviously conceived as shameless partisan advocacy, manipulating viewers with its political narcissism, gender cheerleading, and propagandistic rhetoric. In short, the altered human face, ever youthful, becomes an aesthetic offense that also reduces our sense of humanity.
Willem Dafoe, as Schnabel’s Van Gogh, does not simply give a performance, he is the film’s material. The close identification of an actor with a film’s topic is part of the way that Schnabel encourages us to relate to Van Gogh. The effect he achieves is the opposite of the political divisiveness motivating Hollywood’s RBG agitprop.
Coming from the art world, Schnabel has developed empathy based on personal experience. When Van Gogh is told “You’re surrounded by stupid, wicked, ignorant people,” it isn’t to martyr him. Schnabel’s sensitivity to Van Gogh’s trials and agonies is apparent in how he photographs Dafoe, who, significantly, also played Scorsese’s Jesus and here becomes another of Schnabel’s artist-surrogates (along with Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat, Javier Bardem as Reinaldo Arenas, and Mathieu Amalric as Jean-Dominique Bauby).
By collaborating with these colleagues, Schnabel enters the imagination of each of his heroes. He visualizes the neurosis in Van Gogh’s countenance: Dafoe’s squint and jutting nose, chin, reddish beard, thinning head of hair, and facial wrinkles. At Eternity’s Gate offers a visual emanation of Van Gogh and an outpouring of his sensibility. Schnabel replicates the rough, impetuous brush strokes: “Painting has to be done in one clear gesture, has to be done fast.” The use of blackouts with voiceover narration, the rough, brusque camerawork and sensitive light are similar to the surrealist-impressionist cinematic gimmicks of silent-era film experiments. The p.o.v. style sees (and feels) as Van Gogh did — with sun glare, jagged edits, swish pans, and close-ups. When Emmanuelle Seigner looms on screen as the proprietress Madame Ginoux who poses for Van Gogh, gives him an unused ledger for drawing, or looks toward the camera, her powerful visual presence makes her painted portrait come alive in the viewer’s mind — intensely. Vladimir Consigny as Dr. Felix Ray and Amalric as Dr. Paul Gachet provide the same instant living-gallery recognition.
Van Gogh was misunderstood in his time for his idiosyncrasy and sacrifice, but Schnabel appreciates it in the same sense that Van Gogh himself flirtatiously tells a maid that he likes mystery: “Shakespeare was the most mysterious of all writers.”
Van Gogh confides “I need to be in a fevered state” to his friend Gauguin (Oscar Isaac); they’re in a cathedral’s blue-gray backyard cemetery. Intimacy and mortality are Schnabel’s thematic motifs. (“When facing a flat landscape, I see eternity.”) The sibling pietà — of Van Gogh cradled in bed by his brother Theo (Rupert Friend) — is profound, worthy of the previous Van Gogh salutes by Minnelli, Altman, Pialat, and Kurosawa. Schnabel subtly salutes Van Gogh’s perseverance by understanding his need to paint — to exercise his gift, as he expresses to a priest — in spite of the cruel, stupid, wicked ignorance of his world. This makes At Eternity’s Gate a homily to the incivility that currently rocks our world.